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MUSIC REVIEW: Messiah

by Suzanne Yanko

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without Messiah. Fortunately there are many performances of Handel’s best-known oratorio every December, including “sing your own” versions which can regrettably give new meaning to the chorus, All we like sheep have gone astray. For my money you could hardly do better than the annual Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Messiah, particularly now that the former Melbourne Chorale has become the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. This was the new ensemble’s first Messiah. The more than 120 singers brought a new enthusiasm and strength to the work, accompanied by a chamber orchestra-sized MSO, plus organ and harpsichord. Today’s authentic approach to baroque style has done much to revitalise this popular work, which in older recordings can be almost oppressively heavy and slow. Under Graham Abbott’s direction (with the choir beautifully prepared by Jonathan Grieves-Smith), there was measure and consistency and a new appreciation of the work’s extraordinary contrasts. Despite being described as a “tenor” in the program notes, the always delightful Sara Macliver gave the soprano solos the sweetness they deserved, and in the duet He shall feed his flock, her voice matched well with David Hansen’ counter-tenor (another welcome nod to Handel’s original scoring, with the singer producing some remarkable ornamentation). The reliable baritone Douglas McNicol was outshone on this occasion by Benjamin Rasheed, a tenor who has been winning attention for his oratorio appearances. However, all four soloists impressed with the clarity of their diction (there was no need to check the program notes for the words) and their depth of feeling. There is a lingering debate about whether audiences should follow the custom of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. On this occasion, the Hall rose to its feet spontaneously – and it was entirely the right thing to do. It had less to do with 300-year-old history than with expressing a heartfelt appreciation of hearing Handel’s well-loved work performed so magnificently.

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