Messiah review – Oliver Brett

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Performances of Handel's Messiah are of course very common at this time of year and it is all too easy to go through the motions of performing or attending a performance of this well-loved choral work. For many people it has almost become an Easter tradition, something which has become part of many people's Easter preparations. Just as we may give up chocolate for Lent, attending a performance of Handel's Messiah can almost become a Lenten penance. Lasting about two and a half hours, it can feel as though one is going through the motions of sitting through this well-known music. The music can almost seem too familiar, and contain no surprise, nothing to make us sit on the edge of our seat, just another performance of the Messiah.

Just as it can be extremely dull to sit through another Messiah, it can be incredibly thrilling to hear a performance which is full of energy and personality. The latter was most definitely the case on Thursday evening. The intimate space of St James' makes it a wonderful place to experience music. As an audience member, you always feel a part of the performance. I felt as though I was not merely attending and listening to the performance, but as though I was involved and actively experiencing the music. The choruses were delivered by the St James' choir with a great directness. Their rich sound effectively captured the differing moods of the various movements from a spine-tingling 'Since by man came death' to a wonderfully joyous 'Hallelujah Chorus'. The difficult runs of the faster movements such as in 'For unto us a Child is born' and 'Let us break their bonds asunder' were handled by the choir with great agility and style. The difficult passages were made to sound easy as they danced along with a great foot-tapping swagger.

The size of the St James' Baroque orchestra, playing on period instruments, was perfectly suited to the size of the choir. The orchestra, extremely ably led by Brendan Joyce, played with great style all evening. They seemed to be inspired by the choir's singing and the choir in turn seemed to be infected by the orchestra's energy as they played off each other with a great joie-de-vivre.  

It is very rare to attend a performance of the Messiah which does not contain a cast of guest soloists. The strength and depth of the St James choir was highlighted by the fact that all of the solos were performed from among their own ranks, with several different soloists in turn stepping forward to perform the recitatives and arias. Like the choruses these were all stylishly performed. One thing I was very impressed with all evening by both soloists and choir was the clarity of their diction. Not only was the text always very clearly enunciated, but the meaning of the text was very strongly communicated through effective use of consonants and varying tone colours.

Special mention must go to the evening's conductor, St James' Head of Music, Warren Trevelyan-Jones. He had a strong sense of how he wanted the music to go, which was always clearly conveyed to his musicians. His tempi were always exciting – he brought a great sense of almost percussive energy to the faster movements and he allowed the music to take off, however never so much that the detail of the music was ever lost. The individual lines were always beautifully shaped with a great natural sense of musicality. The standing ovation from many members of the audience at the evening's conclusion was richly deserved.


 

Oliver Brett is the Assistant Director of Music at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney


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