MSO: Messiah

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Published: 15th December, 2014

In this extremely well received performance, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and especially the soloists, brought out the story line of Messiah – in recitatives, arias and choruses – a very convincing way.  It is a story of wonder, awe, sorrow and redemption.

The energetic conductor, Matthew Halls, took the chamber-sized orchestra at a brisk pace with clear intonation.  A welcome lack of vibrato contributed greatly to the Baroque sound.  Without a score Halls seemed to have all sections of the orchestra and choir within eye contact and used his expressive gestures to achieve the effects – sustain this section, shape this line, bring out the forces.  And this was achieved.  Throughout the work Halls brought a lovely attention to the lower continuo parts of cello, harpsichord, organ for the accompaniment.   The orchestra of about 35 rarely overwhelmed the soloists, and the balance of choir and orchestra was excellent.

One highlight of the orchestra’s work, was in “For he is like a refiner’s fire”, the violins truly generating sparks.  Another orchestral highlight was placing two trumpets in the balcony wings to give a processional effect for building to the conclusion of the chorus “Glory to God”.   The orchestra throughout was effective in conveying the emotions of the pieces with great clarity; from wonderful singing violin lines in “Come unto him”, through forceful dotted rhythms of “Surely” to the biting savagery of “He trusted in God”.  In the larger choruses the oboes often added depth to the texture.

Tenor Richard Butler was the first soloist with the recitative “Comfort Ye” and “Every valley” which followed.  Here his voice was effortless and demonstrated a strong top.  Perhaps there was too much reliance on swelling from a pianissimo, but all his work showed a clear technique and clarity of diction that was very persuasive and attentive to the meaning of the words.  In “Thou shalt dash them”, his desire to convey the intensity of the piece seemed to cause a sharpness of pitch on the top notes.

Christopher Field, counter tenor, was equally at home in bringing the Angel’s message of good tidings as he was with capturing the wildness of the runs in “For he is like a refiner’s fire”.  His tone was consistent throughout and with very good flexibility which made for an impressive performance.

Christopher Purves, bass, was another convincing storyteller. From hushed awe to fiery duet with trumpet, he had power and maintained tonal quality. His sense of the character of each aria was very compelling and his ease with the top register and the fiendish runs of “The Trumpet shall sound” was impressive (although one unfortunate low note caused laughter, rather than fear associated with the Day of Judgment)!

Siobhan Stagg’s bright and clear soprano was the real highlight of the night.  It was an exquisitely judged performance in every recitative and aria.  She has a great stage presence and the luminescent quality of her voice (especially the top notes, but evident throughout her range) brought tears for some audience members.  Her “How beautiful are the feet” was extraordinarily radiant.  May the memory of this never dim.

The MSO Chorus was well prepared and under the detailed guidance of the conductor gave very responsive contributions of great immediacy.  There was the softly, hushed quality in choruses such as “Since by man”, contrasting with the joy of “Even so in Christ”.  There were good clear entries and diction in choruses such as “Let us break their bonds” which gave clarity to Handel’s counterpoint.  The standard major choral numbers were given their full-bodies richness without being forced – especially in the opening choruses of Part 2; but their singing of “He trusted in God” was marvellously impressive with its gripping malevolence of taunting and spite.

The ending of the work with its massive sound-edifice of “Worthy is the Lamb” and the build up through the fugal-like structure of the “Amen”, captured the audience’s ears and heart.

Peter Williams reviewed this performance of Messiah at Hamer Hall on December 13, 2014.