The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL: Messiah – an Oratorio, HWV 56
Anna Leese – Soprano
Sarah Court – Alto
Frederick Jones – Tenor
Robert Tucker – Bass
The Tudor Consort (Music Director – Michael Stewart)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Concertmaster – Donald Armstrong)
Gemma New (conductor)
MIchael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday, 12th December, 2020
I can’t remember a Wellington audience leaping to its collective feet at the conclusion of a recent “Messiah” with quite such unbridled enthusiasm as we all found ourselves doing this evening, caught up in what suddenly felt like, from where I had been sitting, a near-tsunami of acclamation for the musicians and the music at the end of the performance’s final “Amen” chorus. Certainly, our sensibilities had been “stoked” by conductor Gemma New’s ear-bending exhortation to us at the concert’s beginning to rise from our seats and “join in with” the magnificence of the renowned “Halleluia” chorus! – oo-er! – wot larks! – a daring break with protocol which “came off” as intended, heightening our involvement with the performance that conductor, singers and players had steadily built up throughout the work, and which seemed to break over us all at the end.
Poet Dylan Thomas wrote of his memories of childhood Christmasses in Wales that “One Christmas was so much like another” – and the same could be said regarding the various performances of “Messiah” that pile up in the memory-banks without reference to specifics outlined in reviews, diaries or letters. And even when certain particular strands of recollection resonate, it can be difficult to pinpoint them in time and context without help – I would have to go to the archives to make specific comparisons with the present, though memories of previous performers such as soprano Madeleine Pierard and bass James Clayton have persisted due to particular distinctions not easily forgotten.
What will, I think, stay with me for some time regarding this most recent performance is its quality of consistency across the strands that make up the music’s tapestry. Beginning with the orchestral playing, I was taken by the sheer focus of the instrumental sounds, both in terms of atmosphere and narrative, which certainly delivered conductor Gemma New’s promise made in a programme note, that the orchestra would realise “the mood, setting, inflections and characters as much as the soloists and choir do with the text”, through “constantly creating contrasts of colour, pacing and volume”. At every point this quality was in evidence, from the shaping of the opening Sinfony, through the manifold realisations of mood – the solace of the introduction to “Comfort Ye”, the serenity of the Pifa or “Pastoral Sinfony”, the tingling excitement of “And suddenly there was with the angel”, contrasted with the sorrowing of “Behold the Lamb of God” and the brutality of the opening to “All they that see him”, to the confident warmth of the strings at “I know the my Redeemer Liveth” and the triumphal strains of “The trumpet shall sound)” – coming full circle with the splendour of the “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen” choruses.
Just as telling were those orchestral moments whose textures were at once made manifest and held in check to allow the singers’ tones through – alto Sarah Court’s evocation of refiner’s fire by turns flickered, glowed and sizzled most convincingly, while the jaggedly-bowed accents of “He gave his back” still allowed enough sound-space for the singer’s piteous commentary of “His cheeks to them that pluck’d off his hair” to make an impact, and a proper contrast with the Bass Robert Tucker’s voice at “For behold” grew portentously but reassuringly out of the gloom towards the light; and later rolled splendidly and easefully around the ambiences in partnership with Michael Kirgan’s stellar “trumpet-sounding” calls.
Tenor Frederick Jones properly caught our attentions with his opening “Comfort ye”, the voice having a real “ring”, compelling our interest further with the growing urgency of his message, surviving a brief rhythmic glitch at one point of “Speak ye comfortably”, and properly energising the textures at “The voice of him”, before joining in with the joyous levity of “Ev’ry valley”, investing every phrase with meaning, declaiming, and then reassuring, as the text required. Later, in his series of vignettes depicting the anguish of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the Romans, he fully conveyed the piteous and brutal nature of the words, harsh and declamatory at “All they that see Him”, and beautifully weighing each sorrowing word of “Thy rebuke” and the succeeding “Behold and See”, then relishing the prospect of divine retribution with stinging force in “He that dwelleth in heaven” and ringing high notes in “Thou shalt break them”.
Mentioning Anna Leese’s performance in conjunction with Madeleine Pierard as a previous soprano soloist in this work is perhaps the highest compliment I can give the former in terms of the pleasure her singing gave me – Leese has also appeared previously in this role in Wellington, but I thought she surpassed even her previous efforts on this occasion, bright and vibrant from the outset, capturing the full gamut of serenity, fear, and wonderment of the shepherds in the fields, and following this with a vivaciously swinging 4/4 “Rejoice greatly” whose contrasting serenity for the middle section’s “He shall bring peace” was unexpectedly and thrillingly set dancing by conductor New’s adoption of the 12/8 version of the aria at the reprise – an inspired moment of scalp-tingling exhilaration!
Both alto and soprano by turns brought a distinctive strain of beauty to “He shall feed His flock”, each singer right “inside” the words, and contributing to the contrasting effect of different voices, the first gentle and comforting, the second radiant and persuasive. Of course the soprano’s most eagerly-awaited moment is “I know that my Redeemer liveth“, one that was here, to my ears, fully “owned” by Leese, as completely as any singer I’ve previously heard, the voice moving between the notes with complete confidence and the words with irrefutable “ownership” – and with an ascent at “For now is Christ risen” at the end which brought tears to the eyes of at least one person present!
We have heard the Tudor Consort perform these Messiah choruses before, with what I remember to be the utmost distinction – but surely not with more beauty, finesse, imagination, drama and intensity than as on this occasion! Despite what the authenticists would almost certainly say, I’m capable of enjoying the sound of a large choir thundering out the “Halleluiah!” chorus with gusto, given that the forces would have to be balanced with comparable instrumental numbers for the “give-and-take” to make sense! But here we had a choir of less than forty voices whose focus enabled a choral sound whose proportionality was overwhelming in terms of its intensity, variety of texture and dynamic range. To single out particular numbers for comment can only hint at the wholeness with which the character of each of the various sequences was realised, with its plethora of detailing and unifying sweep, be it intimacy or grandeur that was needed.
An enduring impression is the clarity of the singing lines, whatever the dynamic levels and textural densities, and achieved here without any self-consciously “mannered” or exaggerated effect of the kind that I recently experienced on a much-vaunted recording (and quickly grew tired of). A couple of examples must suffice: – “And He shall purify” became a veritable rivulet of tinkling, chattering sounds all in perfect accord with one another (and with the instrumental accompaniments), whereas in another part of the work the combatative “Let us break their bonds asunder” sounded like a veritable fusillade of stinging notes, precisely aimed for maximum impact! Later, the darkly sinister undertones of “Since by man came death” were given more-than-usually dramatic treatment, with certain of the opening notes scarily accented, heightening the unease and sorrow associated with the dying of light and life, giving the passage a “from fear to hope” slant additional to the usual “darkness to light” progression, culminating in the joyously energetic “by man came also the resurrection”, impactful and liberating!
All of this was presided over by Gemma New, whose New Zealand visit to make her NZSO conducting debut was extended by the privations of Covid-19 to be able to include two further concerts including this one, in which she substituted for British conductor Thomas Blunt, unable to travel to New Zealand to conduct “Messiah” as scheduled. It’s been our great good luck that the concert has been able to happen at all, but to have someone of the obvious talent of New, described as a “rising star in the conducting firmament”, to take over on such an occasion has been an extraordinary kind of “windfall”. And then, to have witnessed such a remarkable re-thinking of an established classic by an up-and-coming conductor (who just happens to be a New Zealander) is a circumstance that has, I suspect, the potential to enter the realm of legend for all present. Everything seemed to come together for the performance to make it distinctive – and I can forsee people in years to come discussing NZSO “Messiah” performances and hearkening back to 2020 with the words, “Ah, you should have been there when Gemma New took over at short notice for “Messiah” during that first “Covid” year, and brought us all to our feet, firstly to JOIN IN with the “Halleluiah” Chorus, and then at the end, OFF OUR OWN BAT we did, to acclaim her and the other musicians, for a performance for the ages! Cheering at the end? I can hear it yet!”