No Christmas without “Messiah” – with the Tudor Consort and the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL: Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Graham Abbott (conductor), with Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Christopher Field (counter-tenor), Henry Choo (tenor), James Clayton (bass), The Tudor Consort (Michael Stewart, Music Director), James Tibbles (harpsichord), Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 10 December 2016, 6.30pm


This was a remarkable performance, in many ways.  The smaller-than-usual orchestra was matched by a larger-than-usual Tudor Consort in fine voice, and splendid soloists, all directed by Australian Handel specialist Graham Abbott.  Unusually, there were no cuts in the score; all was performed.  ‘Their sound is gone out’, in Part II is usually a chorus.  But this was composed three years after the première; in the first performance it was a tenor solo, and so it was in this performance.  (Thank you, Wikipedia).

An excellent printed programme gave much information, as well as the full libretto.  The biographies of the soloists were marred by a number of minor errors – whether the fault of the singers or the NZSO, they should not have been difficult to correct.  No author was given for the excellent notes, but the subscript ‘Approximately 2 hours’ was certainly a considerable understatement.  Perhaps it was based on performances where some numbers are omitted.  As happens so often, the lighting was too low for much of the audience to read the programme easily.  It is a strange New Zealand custom that I have not met in the UK or other countries.  Programme designers for this type of concert need to bear in mind that a large proportion of the audience is over 55 years of age; it is known that older people need more light to read by.  But in any case, this is not a spectacle like ballet, opera, cinema or plays.  There is no detail on stage needing to be seen.  The printed words are what need to be seen – especially at the $10 price-tag.

This was an approach to an ‘authentic’ (aka historically-informed) performance; the soloists introduced their own flourishes to endings of arias; the string players played in baroque style, with little vibrato (but not authentic instruments or bows), and the high trumpet was used.  Tempi were in the main fairly fast compared with what was usual 30+ years ago.

At first I was doubtful of the capacity of a small orchestra and relatively small choir (39 singers) to produce an authentic performance in a huge auditorium such as Handel would not have dreamt of for his oratorio’s initial production in Dublin (in a hall that, at a squeeze, accommodated 700), but I was wrong.  The placement of the choir behind the orchestra, where its sound resonated off the wooden panelling behind provided a more than adequate, accurate sound, for the most part.

The orchestra, too, created a sound that was readily heard, whether forte or pianissimo.  It was led by recently appointed Yuka Eguchi, Assistant Concertmaster.  The opening number, the gorgeous Sinfonia, gave the orchestra a chance to prove its lovely tone, with crisp oboes to the fore; the pace was not too fast.

The choir is really the principal performer in this work; how much of the finished product  was due to Graham Abbott and how much to the choir’s Music Director we cannot tell, but certainly what was produced was accurate, mellifluous, alert, flexible and very pleasing on the ear.

The soloists were a very even bunch (was it because most of them, and the conductor, were Australians?).  Henry Choo was first to be heard. He is a very accomplished singer, although not the most beautiful tenor I have heard in this work.  However, he has superb control and shaping of phrases and runs,  His embellishments at the end of ‘Every valley’ were wondrous.

The choir’s entry of ‘And the glory’ seemed a little understated, but it soon proved that it has plenty of volume, especially the men.  The clarity of words matched that of Henry Choo.  Accuracy was assured; throughout the performance only a few consonants were out of place, and intonation was always spot on.

Bass James Clayton in his declamation ‘Thus saith the Lord’ let us have it, in a robust reading.  His runs were well-articulated, and his words were exemplary.

It was a little surprise to hear the alto solos sung by a counter-tenor.  I find that Handel’s first performances in 1742 had a woman alto soloist; the first use of a male alto was in 1750.  Christopher Field has a fine voice and technique, and his flourishes in his recitatives and arias were remarkable, but his lower notes often disappeared.  He excelled in ‘O thou that tellest’; he had great breath control throughout the aria, taken at a fairly fast tempo.  The chorus section of this was bright and punchy.

The choir was notable in the tricky ‘And he shall purify’; the ensemble was salutary, making for an admirable rendition.  There was no muddiness despite the slick pace, and attacks and cut-offs were absolutely together.  However, here and elsewhere there was too much ‘thuh’ instead of the mute ‘e’ of ‘the’ in normal speech.

Throughout, the orchestra was simply top-class, not least in the lovely Pifa (Pastoral) movement for orchestra alone.  It was followed by the first appearance of Madeleine Pierard, who declaimed with great clarity the recitatives leading to the choir’s ‘Glory to God’, in which the brass instruments are first used – they made their mark.

‘Rejoice greatly’ went at quite a lick; Pierard’s decorations were sublime.  The harpsichord was notable in this aria; I hadn’t always heard it earlier, but there were no violas or organ in this number.  The counter-tenor’s return with the recitative ‘Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened’ revealed the singer’s expressive singing giving the words meaning.  The soprano part of ‘He shall feed his flock’ came as a bit of a shock because of the contrast..  Both singers have incisive but beautiful voices.  Pierard exhibited great control as she sang high notes in a delicate pianissimo.

The choir sang ‘His yoke is easy’ at a cracking pace to end the first part.  Consonants were clear, and accuracy was maintained.  The opening chorus of the second part, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ surprised me, since the interpretation involved no double-dotting of the rhythm, as had become customary.  This was a beautifully smooth performance; throughout the work, there was admirable contrast between punchy, staccato choral movements and others that were legato.  The choir’s next chorus, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ was an example of the former style.  Then ‘And with his stripes’ reverted, in contrast, to legato, followed by staccato ‘All we like sheep’ with its musical word-painting, and legato ‘And the Lord hath laid on Him’.

Before these, ‘He was despised’, a favourite alto aria, was sung well apart from one or two ugly notes, and a rather unattractive habit of the soloist bending his knees while singing.  There was a wonderful high note in his final embellishment.

The tricky chorus ‘He trusted in God’  had some ‘s’s that happened before they should have, but this is nit-picking; the singing was excellent.  The contrast of tenor recitative ‘Thy rebuke has broken his heart’ was made meaningful by its very slow tempo.  ’Behold and see’ revealed a lovely tone from Henry Choo, followed by ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’.  Here, as elsewhere, Andrew Joyce (cello) and James Tibbles (harpsichord) were busy providing the continuo – though unlike other baroque composers, Handel frequently used other instruments to accompany recitatives.  Singing again in ‘But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell’, Choo expressed the words clearly and phrased the music intelligently.

One word describes the  chorus ‘Lift up your heads’: splendid!  ‘Let all the angels of God’ is a chorus I had never sung, or heard – it is usually cut, likewise the very florid alto aria ‘Thou art gone up on high’.  In ‘The Lord gave the word’, great was the singing of the chorus.

Another favourite soprano aria, ‘How beautiful are the feet’ followed.  How beautiful is the voice of the one who sang it.  ‘Their sound is gone out’ was slow but strong from the tenor, followed by the rousing ‘Why do the nations’, in which James Clayton was in his element with excellent vigour and clarity. These characteristics persisted in the next tenor recitative and the aria ‘Thou shalt break them’.  Part II concludes with choral music’s most celebrated chorus: Hallelujah’.  Following tradition, the audience took to its feet (but I did not, due to a current infirmity).  It was rendered brilliantly.

The pinnacle of all the solos is probably ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, and Pierard gave  rich, controlled performance – one out of the box.  The soft notes were exquisite.  The following chorus ‘Since by man came death’, with its contrasts of quiet phrases and  contrasting excitement of ‘…even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ was spectacular.  The choir’s uniform timbre owes a lot to the careful discipline of every singer making the vowels in the same way.

Another highlight is the aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’.  Clayton was in fine form.  The high trumpet was splendidly played by Cheryl Hollinger; it was relatively legato playing, and she only required back-up on a couple of notes.  The only vocal duet in the work ‘O death, where is they sting’ was pleasingly sung by alto and tenor, followed by a good outing for ‘But thanks be to God’ (it is often omitted).

Another less familiar aria ‘If God be for us’ was superbly sung by Pierard, with ethereal high notes.  Finally, the glorious chorus ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’.  It was accurate and lively despite coming after much singing and playing.  The two trumpets and timpani brought a jubilant end.  What a magnificent conclusion to a long work!  What a great variety of wonderful music Handel wrote in this masterwork!

All praise to choir, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  The audience’s enthusiastic response was well deserved.

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