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Royal Melbourne Philharmonic: Handel’s Messiah

by Julie McErlain

What an historic performance! The long and distinguished career of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic, suspended during the coronavirus lockdown, was admirably back on track as soon as restrictions eased. With just a few rehearsals available, the Choir combined with the RMP Chamber Orchestra and four superb soloists to produce a memorable performance of their 241st Messiah, continuing an unbroken sequence of annual performances since 1853. Conducted by Andrew Wailes with flair, precision and utmost respect to spiritual expression and tradition, this occasion also marked the 37th Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Concert.

Staged in the historic setting of All Saints Anglican Church East St Kilda, magnificent artwork, stained glass windows and architectural beauty reinforced the powerful spiritual message of Handel’s most popular choral masterpiece. Filmed without an audience present, this event was recorded and streamed for public viewing at seven scheduled timeslots between Christmas Day and Boxing Day, with two sessions timed for Northern Hemisphere audiences. In continuing the RMP tradition, mounting such a high class visual presentation, and rehearsing with such short preparation time, this achievement will stand the test of time, both for high quality and as a significant record of unbroken annual performances.

Illustrious English tenor, Christopher Watson, gave an exemplary performance of Comfort Ye, producing mellifluous lines that were strong, smooth, lyrical, colourful and most soothing. Andrew Wailes had employed the more traditional cuts for the on-line format, and had also given this longstanding member of the Tallis Scholars the rarely heard version of Their Sound is Gone Out. We were also treated to the full version of The Trumpet Shall Sound, where bass baritone Andrew O’Connor also showed effortlessness and evenness in strength and timbre, adding significantly fine embellishment to the reprise section of this popular Air. Winner of the 2020 RMP Aria, O’Connor demonstrated a sensitive tonal variation with the contrasting keys and texts of the principle sections, sharing Handel’s colour and vibrancy with Christopher Grace’s golden trumpet solo. O’Connor also commanded our full admiration for his highly effective shaping of the low, dark texts For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth, particularly the fiendish phrase “land of the shadow of Death”.

Amelia Jones, soprano, and Sally-Anne Russell, mezzo-soprano, completed a stellar quartet of soloists, whose individual vocal timbres, crystal clear pitch and diction were ideal. Russell’s solos were highly expressive and evocative, her delivery always professional and heartfelt. Jones, while perhaps a little restrained in Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, was pure in voice and spirit, calm and spiritually angelic in all solos.

With the growing importance of visual presentation, scenic beauty has to be mentioned.  There was great care taken in filming this event, with camera angles and close-ups chosen to complement the music, incorporating the art and religious icons of All Saints Church. Against a background of historic gold, crimson and burgundy wall panels, Sally-Anne Russell’s solos were beautifully framed, reflecting extra warmth and richness.

Near Amelia Jones, a statue of the Virgin Mary, modest, humble and prayerful, wearing a blue veil, corresponded with Jones’ blue apparel and angelic vocal setting. Highly expressive, Russell’s He Was Despised was strongly complemented with the camera angled off-centre to include the vision of Christ nailed to the Crucifix, with a higher glorious wide backdrop of five stained glass windows. Outside light obligingly shone through the central window illuminating the figure of Christ.

Camera work was mostly smooth and sensitive to the orchestration and structure of the oratorio, highlighting soloists, choral sections or instrumental players in a subtle, non-distracting way. Always the music and the historic setting in this Church connected with the audience. Candles and historic traditional carvings, carved furniture and gilded ornaments added to a highly colorful setting for this visually wonderful event. In introductory notes Wailes described the choir wearing sombre black masks for Since By Man Came Death then removing them dramatically on the exclamation by man came also the resurrection of the deadas a subtle reference to the terrible situation of COVID and lockdown.

Social distancing ensured the 53 RMP choristers were spaced beautifully in a broad curve across the width of the church. The vision was pristine, the sound was rich, balanced, reverential, energetic and remarkable for the singers’ delivery of clear text and emotional rapport. The final bars of All We Like Sheep – Adagio showed a broad, expansive and blended sonority, with The Lord Gave The Word demonstrating a highly skilful execution of intricate contrapuntal lines. In this fine acoustic, inner vocal parts were clear and easily discerned. An outstanding ensemble included Stefan Cassomenos, harpsichord, and Calvin Bowman, chamber organ, while the addition of a solo oboe added colour to the small string ensemble. Precision and perfect accompaniment was the result. One cannot get better than that.

For fifteen years, RMP’s Artistic Director ,Andrew Wailes, has continued to share passion, determination in hard times, and commitment to historical traditions in performances of large-scale works at the highest standards.  The creativity shown in this Messiah, the joy of live performance, the execution of high-class musicianship and the visual colour made this a different and highly memorable experience.

Photo supplied

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Julie McErlain reviewed the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic’s streamed performance of Handel’s “Messiah” filmed at All Saints Church St Kilda in December, 2020.

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