For many music-lovers, a year would not feel complete without a dose of Handel’s best known oratorio Messiah, as a participant or audience member. In Melbourne in recent weeks there have already been several opportunities to hear local community and church choirs (with orchestras) offer their versions in town halls and churches, and there are more leading up to Christmas. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Messiah at Hamer Hall, conducted by Italian baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini was well-attended, with many participants from other performances now in the audience. Nearly every listener will have strong feelings of their own about this concert, and other performances they’ve experienced with which to compare it, whether as a chorister, audience member or orchestral musician.
Handel’s masterpiece was famously written in just a few weeks, and first performed in Dublin in 1742. Handel rearranged various sections for the forces at his disposal over the first several performances. His orchestra originally was strings, trumpets and timpani, and he later added oboes and bassoons. Sometimes there were up to seven different soloists, with the solos dispersed in diverse ways. Most earlier performances had less than fifty participants. By the end of Handel’s lifetime, performances with several hundred were growing more common, and numbers increased even more in subsequent years. Mozart’s reorchestration to include more woodwind and brass was often used, and Sir Eugene Goossens’ 1959 version for Beecham was the biggest orchestral version of all, memorable for a truly explosive Hallelujah Chorus.
On Saturday, a pared back MSO of 35 players and 60 voices from the MSO Chorus was under the leadership of Rinaldo Alessandrini, the founder-director of Concerto Italiano. He has recently brought some stunning Monteverdi to Australia – Vespers to Melbourne last year, and an equally exciting Orfeo to Adelaide earlier this year, so there was an expectation of a performance that might bring a new perspective to Messiah.
It was different – tempi varied, some much slower than the dance-like versions we’ve come to expect from baroque performances. Some careful work came from the orchestra, where bowings had been given careful phrasing, but there was a distinct plodding feel to the music-making. Often the care within phrases did not transfer to giving the whole phrase a direction. In short, much of it was dull, lacking in a sense of purpose from the conductor.
The soloists were a mixed bag too. British tenor Ed Lyon opened the proceedings with a very able Comfort ye and Ev’ry valley. Later his work in the passion section in Part Two was exemplary, and his thrilling Thou shalt break them was alone a good reason to stay on past the interval. (There were quite a few empty chairs after the break.) Mezzo-soprano Jocelyn Rechter struggled to be heard in O thou that tellest, where the pitch lies in a difficult place for any but an alto voice, although the orchestra was playing as quietly as they could. From where I sat in the “circle”, she appeared to suffer similarly in most of her solos, only cutting through in the higher registers of the later arias. The Italian bass, Salvo Vitale’s poor English pronunciation was a barrier throughout the evening, though his voice provided the right bass range and sound. Soprano Sara Macliver’s clear bell-like vocal quality filled the hall, and her Rejoice greatly, with a bright tempo and dazzling semiquavers was a joy to hear.
The saving grace of the performance, besides Macliver and Lyon, was the hard-working MSO Chorus. They were in fine form, with a well-balanced choral sound, and capable of great dynamic variation. They did not appear to be assisted by Alessandrini’s conducting. He didn’t seem to look at them often, and little could be ascertained from his big swinging arm movements, his hands often mirroring each other.
If the conductor was coming to Messiah with a new interpretation, it would have been helpful for some background to beincluded in the program. It was interesting to hear But who may abide given to the soprano soloist, though it is difficult in the higher key to sound menacing enough. The chorus For unto us a child is born was so slow that it lacked any sense of sparkle or celebration. The offstage doors mysteriously opened just in time for Glory to God in the highest, and the trumpets played from the wings, achieving a lovely balance with the orchestra and chorus.
Rechter’s He was despised was very slow too, and gradually became even slower till it almost stopped at the end of the first section, then took off again to deliver the B section, and we had the interminable da capo where very little changed from the first time. The tenor’s sequence of recitatives in Part Two was curtailed. He was cut off was cut out, and the following aria But thou didst not leave his soul in hell, and the delightful chorus Lift up your heads, o ye gates was also omitted, making it an awkward key change to the next chorus. The rarely performed Thou art gone up on high appeared, giving Rechter some opportunity to sing in a more comfortable range. The trumpet shall sound appeared without the B section and the da capo, but with some thrilling trumpet playing. The Blessing and honour fugue from the final chorus was taken much slower than usual, though on looking at the score I see it is marked Larghetto, in contrast to the final Amen section which is marked Allegro moderato.
There are so many ways Handel’s Messiah can be performed, and so many ways it can be appreciated. Hearing different interpretations whether we agree or not, creates memories of other performances, other places, other singers, other situations. For instance, I remain unconvinced by any good reason to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus other than a desire to stretch one’s legs, but the tradition certainly continues in Melbourne. This MSO Messiah did reinforce my own view that the choruses are the strongest element of the work, and that we are fortunate to be hearing such good choral singing regularly in this city, alongside our fine Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.