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MSO: Handel’s Messiah

by Suzanne Yanko

Such was the anticipation of a memorable evening that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra had to schedule an extra Messiah last week. Given that Melburnians were spoiled for choice in performances of Handel’s pinnacle work, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus deserve credit that theirs were sell-outs. It can be a blessing and a curse to present a work that is so well-known and loved, with the likelihood that audiences have their own recordings to tide them through the rest of the year. So the choice of conductor is vital in the matters of interpretation, orchestration and –crucially, since Baroque “authenticity” is now usual – tempo. Guest conductor Reinhard Goebel has the perfect credentials: an early-music exponent, he is professor of Historically Informed Performance at the Mozarteum Salzburg. The Mozart connection is important, as the great classic composer made significant changes in the interests of modernisation (not a concern that the 20th century invented!). The substitution of wind parts for harpsichord continuo was welcome but to have the horn playing much of the shortened “The trumpet shall sound” diminished the power of one of the most distinctive arias in Messiah. Fortunately, Teddy Tahu Rhodes sang this last baritone aria with all the relish and power that he maintained throughout, with some – such as “Why do the nations?” – perfect vehicles for his operatic voice. Like Handel before him, Mozart reallocated arias to different soloists, which was disconcerting at times, but did not diminish the fine performances by Tahu Rhodes, Miriam Allan (soprano), Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo) and Angus Wood (tenor). What was far more remarkable – and in my view, the low point of the night – was the positioning of the soloists: literally, sidelined, with the women seated near the left stage exit, and the men on the right. As required, they came to the front to perform – but this was at times disruptive, as the clatter of heels could be heard in the perfect acoustics as soprano or mezzo were called on. Often, they only had a brief recitative to sing before returning to relative obscurity. Given this odd staging, it’s remarkable that the soloists maintained their cohesion with each other, and the orchestra and chorus. Allan, in a blue off-the shoulder dress (with only a modest cross around her neck to suggest she was not headed for a cocktail party), has a pretty voice that coped equally well with the conductor’s rushed tempo in “O thou that tellest” and the rather slow “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, perhaps the most famous soprano aria in the work. Russell, in elegant yet sober black (but dripping diamonds – perhaps she and Allan should have swapped jewellery?), was a secure and wise choice as soloist, as her experience allowed her rich mezzo to shine through, whatever the vagaries of tempo and seating arrangements. Tenor Angus Wood gave a similarly fine performance, appearing unfazed as he sailed through challenging arias such as “Rejoice greatly”, at the pace demanded by the conductor. Credit must go to chorus master Jonathan Grieves-Smith for his preparation of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. If I thought I noticed a momentary panic in their eyes as Goebel started some sections at a cracking pace, their singing did not betray it. In every aspect – timing, entries, strength and dynamics – the chorus again proved outstanding, to the final immensely satisfying “Worthy is the Lamb”. The audience’s familiarity with Messiah may encourage them to take the orchestra for granted – but one should reflect on what a great achievement this three-hour performance is. The musicians were responsive to a conductor whose vision for the work was informed and uncompromising, and they delivered a performance to rival any orchestra in the world. It was pleasing to be among the audience that rose to its feet twice: once for the Hallelujah Chorus and then again at the end of the performance, in recognition of the truly great Messiah that had marked the end of the MSO’s 2011 season. Rating: 4.5 stars Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus present Handel Messiah (orchestrated Mozart) Conductor: Reinhard Goebel Soprano: Miriam Allan Mezzo-soprano: Sally-Anne Russel Tenor: Angus Wood Baritone: Tahu Rhodes Chorus master: Jonathan Grieves-Smith Melbourne Recital Centre – Elisabeth Murdoch Hall Thursday December 15, 2011

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