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Lightning, thunder and Orpheus Choir’s and the NZSO’s “Messiah” – never a dull moment!

By , 07/12/2019

HANDEL – Messiah HWV 56 (complete)

Celeste Lazarenko (soprano)
Anna Pierard (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Goodwin (tenor)
Hadleigh Adams (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (director Brent Stewart)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Graham Abbott (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th December, 2019

There would probably have been a number of people at this “Messiah” performance, both performers and audience members, who had shared something of my own experience a couple of hours before the concert’s starting-time, of the onslaught of an unexpectedly vicious single lightning strike during a storm over the Mt.Victoria area of the city, one whose particular impact on the house I was inside could have been likened to that of a blow from a gigantic iron-clad fist. Perhaps it was rather more in sheer visceral accord with parts of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony which both the choir and orchestra took part in several weeks ago! – still, the “force of nature” aspect to my mind tied in well with some of the more elemental parts of Handel’s score, put across here by the musical forces assembled with properly-focused strength and conviction.

This was Graham Abbott’s third Wellington appearance as conductor of a “Messiah” (previously in 2012 and 2016), and, as in his two previous outings, featured a “complete” performance of the work, the projected length of such an experience countered, as before, by the conductor’s more-than-usually quick tempi. Even so, the “2 hrs” duration suggested by the evening’s programme booklet seemed firstly alarming, and then, as good sense prevailed, unlikely! As it was, the performance by my reckoning took at least half-an-hour longer, but, thanks to the compelling quality of both singing and playing, kept our interest throughout.

Besides the conductor, and, of course, Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, other “old friends” included the soprano, Celeste Lazarenko, last here in 2017, and mezzo-soprano Anna Pierard, who sang the alto part with the conductor here in 2012. New chums were the two male soloists, both, I thought, making a splendid job of their music, handling the more technical aspects of their parts with great aplomb and bringing distinctive character to the words and their meanings.

The orchestra began proceedings, the band a tightly-knit, chamber-sized ensemble, reflecting the conductor’s desire to keep to the kind of sound he imagined the composer would have heard, the playing throughout confident, supple and spontaneous-sounding, able to surprise with an emphasis or phrasing even in a work as oft-heard as this one, and otherwise delivering all the anticipated “moments” with a fresh distinction. Though it seems odious to “single out” players, one couldn’t help but register the skills of trumpeter Michael KIrgan (resplendently note-perfect throughout “The trumpet shall sound”), and with his partner Mark Carter, adding lustre to both the “Glory to God” sequences of Part One, and the magnificence of the concluding sections of both “Halleluiah” and the final choruses. Unfailingly steadfast, too, was the continuo of harpsichordist Douglas Mews and organist Jonathan Berkahn, while the string and wind lines were a delight to register in both their complementing and counterpointing of Handel’s choral writing.

The first voice we heard was that of tenor Andrew Goodwin, who, in his opening ”Comfort ye” solo encompassed solace, comfort, hope and strength by getting his words to “speak” as well as make music (the word “cry”, for example). His tones had plenty of forthright “ring” and accompanying resonance, enabling him to beautifully “shape” his coloratura passages. In Part Two of the work, Goodwin related superbly with the chorus via his declamatory “All they that see Him” and the following incisive and mocking “He trusted in God”, the tenor’s reply full of pathos, and then carrying this intensity through to the insistent, more defiant,  “Thou shalt break them”, which tingled and stung with focused energy. Goodwin also teamed up tellingly with mezzo Anna Pierard for “O death, where is thy sting” the two fitting their lines together to exhilarating effect!

Although her “big moment” was undoubtedly the aria “He was despised”, whose slower, more meditative sections mezzo Anna Pierard delivered with breath-catching presence and feeling, she also coped as well as any I’ve heard with writing that was often low for the voice while requiring some “heft”, as with the “refiner’s fire” sections of “But who may abide”. Her voice gained in presence to arresting effect when the vocal line rose, as at the ending of “Oh thou that tellest”, and throughout “Then shall the eyes of the blind” – and her hand-in-glove teamwork with the tenor throughout “O Death” already noted, was a joy.

Of course the soprano’s entry is exquisitely timed by Handel for maximum effect at “There were shepherds”, and Celeste Lazarenko didn’t disappoint, a fractional “bump” during one of her “Rejoice Greatly” runs aside. But I thought she really came into her own later with “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, which was beautifully shaped and inflected throughout, movingly so in places, not the least of which was the raptness of “the first fruits of them that sleep”. Then, she further enchanted with her “If God be for us”, floating her lines so sweetly, and confidently essaying the coloratura, with  both her ease and energy giving such pleasure and delight!

I can’t recall ever before hearing Palmerston North-born Hadleigh Adams sing, and thought his performance terrific! As if he, as well, had been assailed by that late afternoon‘s thunderbolt from the skies, he proceeded to bring out something of the same drama in “Thus Saith the Lord”, with a terrific cosmic “shake” and powerful upper notes, before delivering his message of the Lord’s “coming” with true theatrical presence. Dramatic, too, was his “haunted” tone at the beginning of “For, behold”, though he didn’t make as much of the crescendo at “the Lord shall rise upon thee” as I wea expecting – nevertheless, his was a properly visceral “The people that walked in darkness”, throwing his voice up and over great archways of tone throughout. Both in “Why do the nations” and “Behold I tell you a mystery” his storytelling gifts came out strongly, carrying us along with his energies and descriptive detailings – a most engaging performance!

Thus, too, was the Orpheus Choir’s contribution to the proceedings, beginning with a truly resplendent “And the glory of the Lord”, though one which then made the sopranos’ momentary ensemble “hiccup” at the beginning of “And He shall purify” all the more unexpected! Things were fortunately restored with “For unto us” apart from a tendency for the tenors to hurry slightly with their running figurations – and thereafter it all grew in stature and magnificence right to the end. The sequence which truly caught up my responses was that beginning with “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, the sheer attack of both voices and instruments most arresting, followed by an amazingly contrasted “And with his stripes”, taken more slowly and intensely that usual, to be followed by “All we like sheep” the burst of energy awakening us from our reverie of having been “healed”, and the dovetailings between the voices themselves and the orchestra so very delicious to experience!

The response of the audience both to the conclusion of the “Halleluia” chorus and the final “Amen” was overwhelming, though I was sorry that the previously-mentioned work of the solo trumpeter, Michael Kirgan, didn’t seem to be specifically acknowledged at the end (or perhaps I missed that bit of the proceedings!). But all in all, very great credit to conductor Graham Abbott for his overall direction, as well as to the Orpheus’s director, Brent Stewart for the truly sonorous preparation of his forces for the concert.

In the wake of yet another expertly-delivered performance of “Messiah” sounded for us “as Handel would have heard it”, I was interested to be reminded, in another reviewer’s report of the concert, of the Mozart version of Messiah, performed here in 2013 (https://middle-c.org/2013/06/mozart-s-take-on-handel-warmth-more-than-refiners-fire/)  – but I’ve also been thinking equally of late about the “Messiahs” that many of us would have grown up with in the 1950s and 60s, and wondering what people would think of a “retrospective” presentation of the work (in other words, “one for old times’ sakes”).

Two famous interpreters of the work from these (and earlier) times were Sir Malcolm Sargent (with his famed Huddersfield Chorus of about five thousand people! – or so it seemed!) and SIr Thomas Beecham with his equally outlandish but splendiferous re-orchestrations which (despite his estate’s claims to the contrary after his death) he had commissioned from another musical knight, Sir Eugene Goossens). My inclination would go towards the Beecham/Goossens version with its splendid array of nineteenth-century instruments accompanying the singers (“Handel would have loved it!” declared the ever imperturbable Sir Thomas!) The authenticists will throw their hands up in horror – but my feeling is that the rest of us will love it too! And what hearing it will probably do is enhance our appreciation of “period-practice” music-making even more. What might the NZSO and Orpheus forces think of THAT prospect, I wonder?

 

 

 

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