A finely-wrought, light-on-its-feet “Messiah” from Nicholas McGegan with The Tudor Consort and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL:  Messiah – An Oratorio, HWV 56

Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Kristin Darragh (alto)
James Egglestone (tenor)
Martin Snell (bass)
The Tudor Consort (director – Michael Stewart)
Nicholas McGegan (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 8th December 2018

Just for interest’s sakes I hearkened back to my “Middle C” review of an earlier Messiah here in Wellington conducted by Nicholas McGegan with the NZSO three years previously, one which I hailed as a focused and characterful performance throughout. There was plenty to wax enthusiastic about on that occasion – McGegan’s very “visceral “ way with some of the music’s more pictorial evocations, such as the frisson of excitement he and his soprano (Anna Leese in that instance) created when, in the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the “Multitude of the heav’nly hosts“ excitingly made its presence felt, the forcefulness of the scourge-blows on Christ’s body at the chorus’s “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, and the sepulchral darkness wrought by the same voices with the words “Since by man came death”, contrasted all the more by the oceanic surge of energy at the immediately-following “By man came also the resurrection of the dead”.

McGegan’s other soloists besides Anna Leese on that occasion played their part in the characterful realisations, an affecting “He was despised” from mezzo Sally-Ann Russell (though the brutal contrasts of “He gave his back” in the piece’s middle section were dispensed with, then – as this time round),  a ringing, prophetic “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” from tenor Steve Davislim, and a blood-stirring, skin-and-hair festooned “Why do the nations?” from bass James Clayton. And though she’s already had a mention above, I can’t pass over Anna Leese’s ravishing and warmly-assured “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, which, together with a Halleluiah Chorus that really took flight as an expression of exuberant joyfulness, created what I thought felt like some kind of “transcendence” that carried the performance on the crest of a wave right to its final moments.

Lest the reader regard these words as uncritical warblings, I must emphasise that there were a couple of things I felt a tad short-changed by at the time, the aforementioned truncated “He was despised” for one, and McGegan’s non-inclusion of practically every number other than what might be regarded as “standard” fare for the work, thus ignoring two or three of my absolute favourites – “The Lord gave the word” from Part Two’s The beginnings of Gospel Preaching, along with two from the otherwise unrepresented The Victory over Death and Sin section, a pairing of the superbly-wrought duet for alto and tenor “O Death, where is thy Sting?” and its equally wonderful linked chorus “But thanks be to God”. Apart from these quibbles I found the realisation hard to fault, with soloists, choir and instrumentalists inspired by their conductor to infuse such “bare-essentials” content with music-making of “energy, brilliance, warmth and sheer grandeur”.

Three years later, and with different soloists and a smaller chorus, here was Nicholas McGegan once again, looking to not only recapture that former occasion’s “first, fine careless rapture”, but take us further along the road travelled by performers and listeners alike, all wanting to deepen our involvement with a masterpiece such as “Messiah”. Expectations were high, and anticipations brimful with promise, everything further fuelled by the presence of well-known vocal soloists, along with the highly-regarded choral group, The Tudor Consort. Of course, having a specialist “early music” choir was immediately going to make a difference to last time, when the choir was the 56-member-strong NZSO Messiah Chorale – here, with twenty fewer voices the performances’ sound would obviously be quite different – leaner, more incisive, but less grand and resplendent-sounding.

Only the most diehard “authenticist” or the most stick-in-the-mud “traditionalist” would want to hear the work performed in much the same way each time – fortunately the NZSO’s attitude seems to be one of “vive la difference”, judging by the changes that have been “rung” in the presentations of the last few years. Who knows? – though loving and appreciating the “period performance” kinds of realisations, I’m still hanging out for the day when we get a local reincarnation of the remarkable (or notorious, depending on one’s standpoint) Eugene Goosens-orchestrated version of “Messiah” that was famously recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham in the 1950s, a version that some older listeners would have been brought up on via that magnificent recording.

For now, it was the same “standard version” as McGegan used previously, leaving me again bereft of those aforementioned favourites, which included the central section of “He was despised”, and giving rise to a similar feeling of Part Three being, relatively speaking, over in almost a trice. Of course, there being no “absolute” version of the work sanctioned by the composer, one has to fall back on the idea I proposed last time round – that of the work being a “listening adventure”, with nothing about any performance taken for granted (prior knowledge excepted, of course). The other variables are, of course, the different performers – and here every single voice was a different one to that of 2015, making for fascinating and rewarding listening on that score alone.

McGegan got a gorgeous sound from his instrumentalists at the very opening, the winds prominent at first before the strings alone took the melody at the repeat  – a chirpily “pointed” but flowing allegro generated a spacious, out-of-door feeling, well-suited to the declamatory entry of the first of the soloists, tenor James Egglestone, with “Comfort ye”. His fine, ringing voice readily evoked the prophetic tones with telling emphasis at certain points – “and CRY out to her….”, for example – his “ev’ry valley” grew in exaltation with each repeat – and how ear-catching and mellifluous was the combination of harpsichord and organ here, played respectively by Douglas Mews and Michael Stewart.

Egglestone again measured up during Part Two to his almost confrontational role in close alternation with the chorus, the voice bright and sharply-focused for “All they that see him”, and imbued with sorrow and pity at “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart”. Some of the words I wanted him to “spit out” more vehemently, such as in recitative with “He was cut off”, and in the aria “But thou didst not leave” – all dramatic, angular stuff that I thought needed the consonants flung about a bit more dangerously! – however, his focus sharpened again at “He that dwelleth in heav’n” and “Thou shalt break them”, the “potter’s vessel” well-and-truly dashed to pieces by the aria’s end!

Bass Martin Snell pinned our ears back with his magnificently sonorous and arresting beginning to his recitative “Thus saith the Lord”, giving his extended flourishes on the word “shake” terrific energy and pointing his words superbly throughout – “The Lord whom ye seek shall SUDDENLY come to his temple!…”. Just as startling in a different way was his second appearance, in the wake of a  marvellously sinister introduction by the strings heralding “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…” His voice had an awe-struck quality, which rose in a great arch at “but the Lord shall arise upon thee” before returning to the gloom to begin his aria “The people that walked in darkness”, his tones again flooding both physical and imagined spaces at the phrase “have seen a great light” – tremendous!

Snell’s later contributions were no less telling, firstly in the frenetically-framed “Why do the nations…”, the orchestral playing on fire with energy and fury, the singer venting the words’ spleen in fine style, hurling out the triplets like sparks from a firecracker in both sections of the aria, and then in the well-known “The trumpet shall sound”, the player sounding a shade tentative over the first few bars, but then hitting the proverbial straps, and the singer resplendent of voice and commanding of manner and presence throughout, the overall effect majestic!

I’d heard Kristin Darragh in smaller operatic roles up to this point, commenting then on the dark and powerful quality of her various assumptions – enough to keenly anticipate what she might do with the alto sections of this score. While I wasn’t ideally placed seat-wise for the first part (my partner and myself judiciously changing our location after the interval for a more front-on, better-balanced sound-picture), I still got a sense of Darragh’s fearlessly engaging way with the texts in “But who may abide”, consistently conveying the impression that every word truly meant something. I wished we had been seated more centrally for the “refiner’s fire” section of the aria, so as to have gotten the full impact of Darragh’s sonorous lower register – a very operatic, Verdian sound in places, also in evidence at ”Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” and its aria, which she shared (to properly startling effect, the voices creating quite different worlds of expression) with soprano Madeleine Pierard.

But it was in one of the score’s defining numbers, the aria “He was despised” (which  I heard from a better-balanced perspective than I did those previous items) that Darragh really demonstrated what she was capable of – here the voice was decked in purple, the emotion conveyed with real pathos (to the point where one almost imagined a sob in one of the descending phrases), then the tones seriously darkened for “A man of sorrows” so that the following words “acquainted with grief” took on incredible poignancy. What a tragedy we weren’t allowed to hear what Darragh would have made of the bitterly incisive lines of the contrasting section “He gave his back to the smiters”, here, as in 2015, not given.

I fancy I’ve witnessed at least three, and perhaps even four “Messiah” performances featuring soprano Madeleine Pierard, each of them displaying the singer’s brilliance and interpretative powers in their varied contexts of the different conductors’ realisations. At her first entrance in Part One she worked hand-in-glove with her conductor in “There were shepherds”, beautifully terracing the growing realisations and excitements associated with the appearances of, firstly, the angel, and then “a multitude of the heav’nly host”, the last depicted by both soprano and players as if transported by ecstatic joy – scalp-prickling stuff! Part One as well featured from Pierard some brilliant, fiendishly euphoric vocalisings expressing the sentiments “Rejoice greatly” – high-energy music-making from both singer and orchestra, the concluding dotted rhythms bouncing notes in every which direction most excitingly! This was followed later by an easeful, soaringly expressive “Come unto Him”, the second part of an aria shared and nicely contrasted with Kristin Darragh’s more visceral, earthy tones.

Pierard was given only one number to sing in Part Two in McGegan’s schema, the plaintive and expressive “How beautiful are the feet”, Handel reserving for the Third Part in this “version” all but one instance of a lighter-toned solo voice, here winningly characterised by the singer. If “He was despised” denoted a kind of “dark centre” of the work, setting the tone for its Second Part (opinions of both such an idea and such a “moment” will vary), then “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Part Three was surely its antithesis, Handel skilfully characterising each by the use of voices with appropriately weighted tones, the contrast between the respective singers here well-nigh ideal.

I’ve spoken before of Pierard’s absolute identification with the words’ ideas and sentiments, and the sense I get of her instinctive “inclusiveness” when singing, as if her voice and presence were “embracing” every listener in the hall. This time round I caught an emphasis I hadn’t previously noted in her performances, her exquisite colouring of the words “the first fruits of them that sleep”, right at the piece’s end, made all the more telling by her lovely ascent at “For now is Christ risen”. While not a “carbon copy” of that “Messiah” performance here in Wellington I waxed lyrical about in 2014 (in a review that was published in an off-shore online critical magazine, “Seen and Heard International”) Pierard’s singing here certainly had a comparable “charge” to my ears,  and her approach to the music demonstrated a distinctive and well-focused interpretative viewpoint, as do all great performances.

Sitting where I was for the first part of the work I could clearly see the interactive process at work between conductor Nicholas McGegan and his various forces, choral and orchestral. I didn’t care for the conductor’s physical placement of the soloists when not singing, as they seemed somewhat “removed” from the action, two each on either side, sitting in a kind of divided “limbo” outside the orchestral forces, less able to give each other support and acknowledgement and seem “part of the whole”. It did, I suppose, enable McGegan to interact even more directly with the orchestral players, but I thought it gave less physical and psychological”unity”to the performance in general.

Still, The Tudor Consort voices responded to his direction with focused, detailed lines and plenty of variegated tones to their singing. The silvery tones of the sopranos was always a sheer delight, by turns part of a diaphanous web of sound in hushed sequences, and then gleaming throughout the more forthright passages. But each of the sections possessed a similar ability to spin finely-wrought lines, and maintain an “elfin” ambience, as with some of the long runs and contrapuntal passages  in “And He shall purify”.

McGegan encouraged the music’s dynamic contrasts, as with the “For unto us” opening lines and the climactic shouts of “Wonderful” and “Counsellor” in the same chorus, as also with the contrasts in “His Yoke is easy”. But the chorus that electrified me more than any other with its performance was “All we like sheep”, its convivial exchanges and dovetailings of the words “We have turned” making for sheer delight, until suddenly the music seemed to grow a black brow and a grim aspect, as the voices quietly but intensely “loaded” the hushed ambiences with the crushing weight of the world’s own iniquities, the effect being one of profound shock and dumbfoundment – so very theatrical and psychological! It had the same effect in reverse as the Part Three chorus “Since by Man came death”, here also done with great theatrical flair and atmosphere. My preference in the work would still be for a bigger choir, but despite the relative “lesser” numbers the “bite” required in places like “Surely He hath borne our griefs” was still palpable, as was the splendour of the “Halleluiah” and the final choruses.

In conclusion, no praise can be too high for the orchestra players, who responded to their conductor’s every gesture. I thoroughly enjoyed the instrumental characterisations throughout the whole of the “Annunciation to the Shepherds”, the proceedings reaching a frisson of real excitement at the appearance of the “heav’nly host” with its ecstatic “Glory to God in the highest”, and, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the sepulchral tones of the introduction to “For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth”. Though strings and wind bore the brunt of the workload, the brass and timpani came into their own at the “Halleluiah” – I loved timpanist Laurence Reese’s crescendo roll at “King of Kings” at one point! – and in the two final choruses, the “Amen” in particular being more-than-usually expansive and exploratory, requiring a “filling-out” of measures and tones from all concerned. Players and singers alike delivered in spadefuls what conductor McGegan asked of them, and for our delight brought the work to a rousing finish!

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