Photo credit “Latitude Creative”
Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Orchestra Wellington present:
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL – MESSIAH HMV 56
Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Margaret Medlyn ONZM (alto), Frederick Jones (tenor), Paul Whelan (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Orchestra Wellington (Amalia Hall, concertmaster)
Jonathan Berkahn (continuo)
Brent Stewart (conductor)
MIchael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday, December 2nd, 2023
At the Interval, during the Orpheus Choir’s recent “Messiah” performance at the Michael Fowler Centre, I took stock – all very thought-provoking so far, the concert having begun promisingly by conductor Brent Stewart with a soberly-delivered but well-rounded orchestral Overture, grave, but not too solemn, and jaunty without being too punchily “born-again-authentic”, and the orchestra proceeding to confidently work its way through the chameleon-like contrasts of character required to support each of the oratorio’s items.
We heard several distinctive soloists’ turns that conveyed the spirit and essence of the notes and texts, balancing the requirements of the score with the theatricality of the subject-matter, and in almost every case rising splendidly to the challenges suggested by the texts, braving a couple of low-octane moments with enough resolve to hold words and music together. And there were the choruses which explored their own heights and depths of situation and emotion, the voices seeming to me to “sing themselves in” more surely as the sequences proceeded, as did the players with their instruments in like manner.
Highlights of the first half included tenor Frederick Jones’s persuasively prophetic declamation in his opening recitative “Comfort Ye”, pleasingly emphasised by his continuo-only accompaniment for “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”, with only the long runs in “Ev’ry Valley” which involved the word “exalted” and “plain” seeming to affect his powers somewhat. Bass Paul Whelan seemed to have limitless reserves of strength, pinning back our ears with his “Thus Saith the Lord” and his near seismic runs on the word “shake” later in the recitative. I thought his response at “For Behold” curiously neutral at first, eschewing a growing intensity of tone leading up to the words “light” and “glory”, but admittedly making amends in the aria that followed with his sonorous utterance of the words “have seen a great light”.
Margaret Medlyn in the mezzo part made the most of her word-pointing with “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”, and then in the aria “O Thou that tellest” coped with a cracking pace, investing the words “Arise” and “Shine” with suitable radiance as an incentive for the chorus to follow with their even more vigorous incitements of “Arise!” and “Behold!”. And with her colleague, Madeleine Pierard, Medlyn contrived to charm us with the lullabic tones of “He shall feed his flock”, preparing the way for the soprano’s transcending upward-lifting entry with the same melody – always a beautiful moment! Early, the justly famous “Pastoral Symphony” had paved the beguiling way for the soprano, Pierard’s voice as angelic as I previously remembered in this music, making her words tell in announcing the heavenly hosts’ presence, the chorus’s celestial “Glory to God in the Highest” underpinned by some superb trumpet playing!
Here, the chorus work was enchanting – earlier I’d thought that Brent Stewart’s tempi for his forces were too rushed to allow “And the Glory of the Lord” its proper “glory”, and “And He shall purify” its captivating deliciousness in the lines’ effervescent intersecting, like strands of impulse in a bubbling brook! What I admit then bewitched my ear was the first half’s concluding item, the chorus “His yoke is easy”, with Stewart’s tempo quick enough to challenge his voices, but spacious enough to allow the phrases to both bloom and catchily syncopate on the word “easy”. Handel had devised a kind of fugue which plays beautifully with the phrase, before mercilessly subjecting the word “light” to a state of sudden ambivalence – is it a reference to Christ’s teachings and their liberation for all peoples from the laws and strictures of the Pharisees? Or is it an ironic comment upon Jesus’s intention to suffer and die for our sins so that we may be redeemed? The performance illustrated the salient characteristics of the setting in all its contradictory splendour.
I should say at this point that the sum total of what I had heard thus far was disposing me towards looking forward to the second half! – and my expectations were set alight by the opening chorus of the Second Part of the work, “Behold the Lamb of God” the effect of which was hypnotic and compelling to a degree I hadn’t previously registered. Then it suddenly struck me that all the chorus members had closed their scores, and were obviously singing from memory! – it was such a focused “moment” of both sight and sound, and was somehow signalling to us that what we were about to hear was worthy of every skerrick of our attention from this moment on.
And so it proved – Margaret Medlyn again seemed to “own” the words in “He was despised” – no morbidity or sentimentality, here, but somehow pure emotion, expressed by a storyteller in real human terms for another human being – the added force of her articulation of the words “despised” and “rejected” (the latter here almost “sprechgesang”) was a moment of unique feeling, powerful in its conveyed spontaneity.
Then came another of the work’s great sequential sections, one which for me lifted conductor Brent Stewart and his voices “up on high” for a few exalted moments – the chorus “Surely He hath borne our griefs” expressed with such shock and anger as to its significance, with the orchestral support here almost percussive in its attack by way of reinforcing the notes’ jagged angularity – incredible emotion! From this “full frontal” assault sprang the similarly austere “And With His Stripes” whose rigour and severity seemed to bind the music’s course with strong, impenetrable bonds, before Handel suddenly disarmed the exactitude of such sounds at a stroke, with “All We like sheep”, the voices suddenly freed from constraint and revelling in their dynamic contrasts and energies. Handel again here makes inspired and mercurial use of the words’ seeming caprice as a ploy to suddenly plunging our short-lived exuberances into a state of shame and sadness, with the words “…has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, a moment almost stupefying in its effect….
The music’s inexorable ebb-and-flow strength continued with Frederick Jones’s stentorian “All they who have seen him” provoking a derisive “He trusted in God” response from the choir, one then eloquently lamented with Jones’s “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”, and the accompanying “Behold and see”, with Christ’s sufferings and punishment on humankind’s behalf further emphasised by the singer in a remarkable and well-sustained sequence. And a slight rhythmic stumble along the way didn’t deter Jones in his defiant “Thou shalt break them”, the power of God sustaining the music’s and the singer’s determination.
Margaret Medlyn’s “How Beautiful are the Feet” made an appropriately meditative contrast to the travails of Christ’s trials and sufferings, with its intimately–focused solo string accompaniments, a moment of meditation then swept away by the whole orchestra’s whirlwind introduction to Paul Whelan’s rousing “Why Do the Nations”, and with the choir goaded into a kind of similar frenzy in its frantic “Let us break their bonds asunder”, the flailing lines spectacularly dovetailed! The redemption to all of this came surely and squarely with the deservedly beloved “Halleluiah” chorus – of course, we all leapt to our feet (isn’t it, by this time, in our DNA to do so?)! Terrific stuff from all concerned, voices and instruments, and especially the brass and timpani – though a friend of mine afterwards complained that conductor Brent Stewart seemed to “play” with the dynamics too much instead of really “letting ‘er rip!”. You simply can’t please some people, no matter what!
It was left to Madeleine Pierard’s supremely confident and appropriately celestially-bound “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, Paul Whelan’s authoritative “The trumpet shall sound” (supported to the hilt by his trumpeter!), and the Orpheus Choir’s by this time almost transcendental range of articulations, tones and dynamics in taking us through the well-wrought certainties of both “Since by man came death” and “Worthy is the Lamb”, to reach the work’s final “Amen” chorus. I loved the latter’s “building blocks” aspect, rising inexorably from the opening phrase with the voices, and being drawn skywards by the orchestral instruments before the clouds rolled back to reveal its completed grandeur. Great honour and praise are due to conductor/choir director Brent Stewart for his work in enabling and then taking us through such an inspired and far-reaching journey.