Marking the 35th Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Concert at Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday was the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic’s 239th performance of Handel’s Messiah. This was another world-record-breaking performance from the RMP, who have performed it every year without fail since 1853… a remarkable testament to the enduring popularity of this masterpiece. A packed Town Hall provided further evidence of the work’s seemingly endless attraction, with the balcony just as full as the stalls downstairs.
The RMP Choir, numbering about 75, with the mighty Town Hall organ towering behind them were joined by the RMP Orchestra (16 violins, 6 violas, 4 cellos, 2 basses, along with chamber organ and harpsichord, oboes, bassoons, trumpets and drums), and the grand Town Hall organ itself which was used with great effectiveness in the larger movements. This size of ensemble provided ideal support throughout the performance, able to accompany the soloists without overpowering them, but also capable of plenty of volume and dramatic weight when needed to match the considerable power generated by the attentive choir.
Conductor Andrew Wailes is no stranger to this work, having directed many accomplished performances of this piece. His understanding of the score, from his attention to balance and detail throughout the entirety of the piece, was clear. Other dramatic touches like placing the trumpets behind the choir for “Glory to God” and seating the choir in the softer sections like “Since by Man” added considerably to the enjoyment of the work.
The RMP Orchestra provided a polished account, from the very first bars of the Overture to the final moments of an epic “Amen” Chorus which brought the work to a thrilling conclusion. Intonation from strings was impeccable throughout, with a clear ringing tone from the upper strings in the unison passages, and a pleasing warmth and good balance from lower strings and bassoons in the more expansive sections.
The work of the principal continuo musicians was also to be commended. Stefan Cassomenos provided an intelligent harpsichord accompaniment. He was matched by celebrated organist Calvin Bowman, whose chamber organ continuo work was equally reliable. In the climactic moments of the oratorio, Wailes called on Bowman to unleash the might of the Town Hall’s grand organ, and these moments, such as “Worthy is the Lamb”, or the near-orgasmic final cadence proved to be the most powerful and thrilling.
Proper rehearsal preparation and Wailes’ attention to both choir and orchestra was clear from the outset, with a considerable amount of articulation and phrasing providing a stark contrast to many other local performances in recent years. There was a remarkable sense of ensemble from all on stage, with pleasingly consistent rhythmic precision, and clear articulation of text a constant feature. Even in some of the stunningly rapid passages, every note was clearly and crisply delivered by both vocal and orchestral forces, Wailes delivering energy, self-assurance and a neat focus throughout the two and a half hour epic.
Surely, this city has rarely seen a better quartet of Messiah soloists. The young New Zealand tenor Jonathan Abernethy led the way with a heartfelt and convincing account of “Comfort Ye”, showcasing his clear-ringing tenor, notable for its beauty of tone and projection. His commanding account of the bravura aria “Thou Shalt Break Them” was a particular highlight.
Local soprano Jacqueline Porter delivered her lines with a radiant, bell-like purity and sense of phrasing, with the famous Nativity sequence and the aria “Rejoice Greatly” demonstrating her ability to sing with the perfect balance of precision and power, never struggling to soar over the orchestra, kept in check by an attentive conductor.
Dimity Shepherd, another outstanding local singer, delivered fine renditions of the challenging alto numbers, including a moving account of “He was Despised” which featured some forceful recitatives which demonstrated a rich and focussed timbre and excellent diction. Nowhere was this more evident than in “He gave his back to the smiters…. He hid not his face from shame and spitting” delivered with the intensity of a spitting Cobra.
Of the four excellent soloists however, it was the London-based Australian baritone Morgan Pearse who stole the show. Conductor Andrew Wailes entrusted him with several of the big numbers rarely performed by the bass (“But Who May Abide”, “Thou Art Gone Up On High”), and he delivered them all with astonishing power and dramatic intensity. Rarely has “Why do the Nations” been delivered with such clarity: both soloist and orchestra on fire, responding to conductor Wailes’ white hot tempos with impressive attack and fidelity. Pearse’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound” (including the rarely-heard da capo) was quite simply breathtaking. With conductor Wailes urging both orchestra and soloist on, Pearse rose to the challenge, delivering a virtuosic rendition which clearly showed why he is considered one of the most exciting young baritones in the world right now. There were some in the audience who could not resist applauding immediately after “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, but Wailes was a man on a mission to deliver a Messiah that flowed seamlessly, and so the applause had to be held until the end.
This was a memorable Messiah. The audience responded accordingly, quick to find their feet for a sustained standing ovation, and were vocal in their applause. Wailes responded with a Christmas gift in the form of a highly charged encore… as spectacular an “Hallelujah Chorus” as you would ever want to hear. The sound of the final cadence with the trumpets soaring above the powerful choral sound and the impossibly loud organ was both overwhelming and thrilling for all lucky enough to be present.