Handel’s Messiah – music as a living entity

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL – Messiah

Celeste Lazarenko (soprano)
Deborah Humble (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Macfarlane (tenor)
Jared Holt (bass)

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Chorusmaster: Brent Stewart

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Brett Weymark

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 9th December, 2017

This was a most interesting “Messiah”, containing as it did a number of interpretative and executive detailings I wouldn’t quite frankly have expected to encounter in the same single performance. Of course, for me to actually say that goes against the grain of what I’ve always felt about Baroque Music and its presentation, that its composers and musicians (and almost certainly its listeners as well) would have been intensely practical people for whom “getting the music out there” was the absolute priority, however consistent or inconsistent might have seemed the various detailings of the performances’ style or textural fidelity.

Most composers in that era were themselves performers, and for that reason were well acquainted with the practicalities of live music-making, with all its attendant thrills and spills. For this reason I’m inclined to think the average Baroque composer would have been somewhat puzzled at our present-day obsession with so-called “correct” and “authentic” performance practice, especially considering the extent to which conjecture plays a part in making present-day decisions as to how this music was played/ought to be played. There is so much we simply don’t know regarding how they did it in Handel’s time.

Some musicologists, are worried that the in-vogue HIP (historically-informed performance) movement has, by prohibiting any way of playing it except for what is deemed the “correct” way, had the effect over the years of putting early music increasingly in a museum rather than in a “living” context. This “holier-than-thou” attitude is now increasingly coming under fire, its critics declaring that HIP should be a means towards more imaginative music-making, and not an end in itself. And performers are excitingly taking more and more notice of this attitude, as witness what took place during parts of this “Messiah” performance.

It was obvious, right from the work’s beginning, that the conductor, Brett Weymark, had schooled his orchestral forces to deliver crisp, lean orchestral textures which kept Handel’s contrapuntal writing clear and exciting in its vigour and muscularity. In fact the orchestral playing throughout the work was a joy, the textures allowing the different voices to convey whatever character was needed from the context of the separate parts with clarity and focus, from the bright and forceful tones accompanying the Halleluiah Chorus, to the hushed, withdrawn atmospheres accompanying the bass’s recitative “For Behold, darkness shall cover the earth”.

What a delightful surprise, then, to encounter, in the normally strings-only “Pastoral Symphony” two oboes playing the melody in thirds – my thought was “Why didn’t Handel score it this way?” After all the oboe was one of his favourite instruments. It all sounded absolutely enchanting, and very appropriately “pastoral”, as if the shepherds were playing their instruments to their sheep.

The other instrumental contributions which need to be honorably mentioned are those from the solo violinist (Yuka Eguchi in tremendous form as acting concertmaster), solo cellist Andrew Joyce, often a supporting continuo partner to his leader, and playing as beautifully, along with organist Douglas Mews, and trumpeters Mark Carter and Michael Kirgan, the pair magical in the “Glory to God” sequences and splendid in the Halleluiah Chorus and in the final Chorus. And then Michael Kirgan’s solo in “The trumpet shall sound” made a splendid and festive impression throughout.

The chorus work matched the orchestral playing in impact, clarity, energy, colour and delicacy. In places I thought the tenors lacked the last ounce of “heft” (a common problem among choirs), but still contributed to the overall magnificence of the sound with focused commitment. Right from the opening chorus “And the Glory of The Lord” the voices grabbed and held our attention, as much by dint of the variety and colour of the different lines and by the singing’s overall strength and energy. Only briefly did the voices as a whole disappoint, when, during the opening of “Since Man came by Death” they didn’t invest the opening sotto voce murmurings with sufficient awe and despair, so that the outburst which followed had less contrasting impact. That apart, I thought the chorus work among the best I’d ever heard in a “live” Messiah performance. From so many terrific renditions of individual choruses I particularly liked “Surely he hath borne our griefs” – biting, theatrical and dramatic!

The soloists each had different strengths to offer, beginning with the engaging enthusiasm of tenor Robert Mcfarlane, with a warmly reassuring “Comfort Ye”, the voice with a slight warble under pressure, and lacking that last ounce of breath control to bring off the floating aspect of some of his held notes. Nevertheless it was a strong and characterful beginning, with qualities that he later brought to his extended sequence of recitatives and arias concluding with the vigorous ”Thou shalt break them”, a taxing succession of recitative and arias whose focus and purpose he maintained with credit.. He also added a theatrical touch during this sequence, actually turning and facing the chorus during their singing of “He trusted in God”, as if he was Christ directly confronting his tormentors.

Bass Jared Holt certainly gave his contributions everything he had, summoning up great dignity and sufficient portentousness to deliver “For behold” and its following aria “The people that walked” – while not a particularly deep bass, he made up in emphasis and characterization what his voice lacked in true heft, as he did also for “The trumpet shall sound”, later in the work. A curiosity, which I’d never before encountered, was the recitative treatment he gave to ”But who may abide” which prompted a whispered comment from my partner, “Is this the Readers Digest version?”

I thought mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble’s finest moment in the work came with “He was despised” whose opening phrases received particularly heartfelt treatment, the pauses between each statement given enough time to register and generate pity and wonderment; and then the middle section startlingly changing its character to one of great vehemence, vividly presenting the condemned man’s acquiescence in stark contrast to the pitiless and methodical cruelty and scorn inflicted upon him. Elsewhere she occasionally found, as do most mezzos, the music too low in places to be sufficiently “sounded”, though another memorable sequence was her duet with the tenor “Oh Death, where is thy sting”, both singers giving their irruptions of energy to one another and building up a sense of exultation at the victory of life and goodness.

Soprano Celeste Lazarenko used her beautiful voice exquisitely in places, playing her part in painting a wonderous scene of revelation to the shepherds in the fields, and conveying a sense of growing excitement at the presence of the heavenly host of angels – a great moment! She also made the most of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, her voice reaching upwards with absolute security to those celestial heights in the music which convey such a sense of exultation. It was a voice whose sheer sound gave a lot of pleasure, which she used most winningly to focus on the music’s ecstatic quality.

I mentioned the performance’s capacity to surprise in places, never more so than at the beginning of the final “Amen” Chorus, when the soloists congregated together and individually began the fugue, singing the whole of the passage up to the entry of the strings. The conductor’s slow tempi gave a slightly mannered effect, which was emphasized when both strings and then the chorus came in at a faster pace – but nevertheless the idea and its execution certainly grabbed our attention. The rest was what we expected, but the point had been made – the work had been treated as a living entity in places, cocking a snoot at tradition for its own sakes and daring to reimagine some passages without doing violence to the whole. And the skill and sensibility of the performers ensured that whatever was done was brought off with style and focus, adding to a sense of wonderment and renewal.