Wednesday December 21, 2021
This performance of Messiah comes from December last year. Which is a tad disappointing – that the Australian Digital Concert Hall is projecting a year-old concert when you might have expected something fresh, like an interpretation from this year; there must have been some around the traps, especially of a score so inexplicably linked to Christmas time. Added to which, the Christ Church St. Laurence occasion itself was distinguished from others by only a few factors like the participation of the church’s ensemble in residence, the Muffat Collective, and the presence of guest tenor soloist Andrew Goodwin. Several other elements did not work to similar fine effect in this reading of a very familiar masterpiece.
I was tempted to attend a local Messiah last Sunday, given in the Brisbane Town Hall; after all, nothing is quite as effective as a live performance. What put me off was the invitation to interested members of the public to participate in the afternoon as members of the Queensland Choir. Of course, such postulants had to attend rehearsals but I don’t know if I want to pay good money to enjoy this sort of pro-am experience, embittered in my old age by memories of execrable Handel informed principally by good intentions rather than skill. But what do I know? Plenty of people were prepared to put their cash towards this public-involving exercise, if the online box-office seating map was any guide.
Under Sam Allchurch, the Sydney onslaught began well enough, an expanded Collective taking to the Sinfony with bracing vigour and exemplary purity of enunciation (making a good argument for repeating this number’s allegro – but then, nobody ever does). The group’s core – violinist Matthew Greco (this occasion’s concertmaster), violinist/violist Rafael Font-Viera, cellist Anton Baba, keyboard Anthony Abouhamad (handling the harpsichord continuo here) – was supplemented by a clutch of string accomplices, with a trumpet duo and timpani lolling around for most of the night before their big moments at the end of Part the Second and Part the Third. We missed the pair of oboes and bassoon that are required for the chorus Their sound is gone out. Not that this made too much difference because I couldn’t find any details about any supernumeraries; whatever program was originally available (was there one?) was not supplied for this broadcast.
Obviously, I know Goodwin and value his work highly. Bass David Greco has crossed my path (thanks to the ADCH) on a few occasions. Neither soprano Anna Fraser nor alto Hannah Fraser has fronted any ensemble I’ve come across. As the night wore on, both female singers showed themselvcs to be capable if uninspiring Handel interpreters, with a shared penchant for shortness of breath and a resultant unhappy habit of interrupting their lines at unsettling or downright inappropriate places. Greco took up his challenges with relish and some dash, even if his bravura passages didn’t quite come off despite clear efforts to work hard at getting his notes out on pitch and in time.
Goodwin started us off with a best-of-British Comfort ye/Ev’ry valley bracket, showing a slight lagging in the recitative, then a smooth pair of heels at the awkward leaps on exalted (bars 56 to 58), and eschewing the temptation of a cadenza in his second-last bar – thereby displaying a taste and a musicianship that would (should!) shame many another inferior executant.
Next came the first chance to hear the choir through And the glory of the Lord. On first impressions, the six tenors and six basses were dynamically light in comparison with the well-populated soprano and alto forces, the latter quite a presence in this chorus. Yet you waited for something individual about the composite body and, by the end of this amiable set of pages, the overwhelming sense was of a competent Anglican ensemble carrying out their work honestly but without any fire in the belly. So we settled down for a staid night.
Greco worked with force through Thus saith the Lord, notable for a poorly disciplined string entry in bar 7 – completely unexpected and one of the night’s few instrumental anomalies – and a finely regulated 2 1/2 bars of semiquavers (19-21) from the bass himself. Allchurch did not present his alto soloist for But who may abide, taking the alternative – and very rarely heard – bass recitative, thereby reducing the expected 158 bars to 6.
And he shall purify began easily enough with the sopranos clear and consistent; the following bass entry was not as definite in its outline of the 32 semiquavers that occupy the centre of their initial sentence. As is all too common, the chorus settled into a bit of a jog-trot without much concern for phrasing. You could find some powerful, driving phrases in the later stages but these singers were happy enough to get the notes out and in place.
Hannah Fraser stepped out for the Behold, a virgin/O thou that tellest sequence and soon revealed that odd interpolation of breathing stops, notably across bars 29 to 35 on the third repetition of get thee up into the high mountains, and later across bars 90 to 98 at the treatment of is risen upon thee. This voice is mild in delivery, not convincing as far as conveying dramatic import goes, and I wasn’t impressed by the decision to move the concluding D up an octave just before the chorus entered; there’s no need, because the accompaniment is a simple bass line at this point.
Greco returned for the bass accompagnato and song For behold, darkness/The people that walked which flowed past easily enough, apart from some sparked-up rhythmic irregularities when he reached but the Lord shall arise. This singer also avoided the low G and F in bar 8 of the aria and took the final notes of his line an octave above the normal position – apparently not sure of his carrying power in a low register.
Everybody’s second-favourite chorus For unto us a child is born passed by without much fuss – or much drive; the combined forces didn’t make any effort to point up the pages’ magnificent coup de theatre at the first Wonderful exclamation in bar 33. Despite a lack of competition, the altos’ semiquaver run proved indecipherable from bar bar 57 onward, but throughout the expanded Muffats provided a vital and punchy underpinning that attracted more than its usual share of attention.
We heard the short 12-bar version of the Pifa interlude before Anna Fraser gave us the recitative/accompagnato Nativity quartet that prefaces the Glory to God chorus. The soprano soloist showed some spirit in this brief exposure, giving the choir a finely purposeful and saying lead-in. Sadly, you listened in vain for much jubilation in the angels’ acclamation, even if the choral output was accurate in timing and pitch. I convinced myself that trumpets were added to the mix, but they were remarkably faint in volume.
It was hard to tell whether Anna Fraser was taking Rejoice greatly too fast or too slow for comfort. Things were proceeding smoothly enough but a whole group of four semiquavers disappeared at bar 22, and an unsettling twitch was the singer’s occasional portamento elision between closely adjacent notes. Probably the only other notable factor in this bouncy reading came in a rare violin error at bar 104 where someone played a B for the requisite B flat.
Hannah Fraser returned for the Then shall the eyes recitative and led the way into He shall feed his flock, with Anna Fraser doing the usual and taking over the second half at bar 25/26; I was pleased by the sudden piano at the repeat of take his yoke upon you, although it isn’t an original stroke. Again, the chorus ambled through His yoke is easy, the sopranos showing best reactions to Allchurch’s pace and producing a satisfying final top B flat seven bars from the chorus’s (and Part the First’s) end.
Behold the Lamb enjoyed a typically lugubrious outing, and I thought for a moment that matters were coming close to a dead halt at bar 18 where taking away the sins of the world grew into a seriously weighty undertaking. But the chorus wasn’t quite on point, their dotted quaver-semiquaver rhythmic cells coming close to triplet pulses. Handel lays on the tragedy with He was despised, which is a superb alto vehicle. Hannah Fraser gave a muted account of this song, during which her odd vocal line interruptions for breaths had me puzzled, particularly in a piece where Handel gives his interpreter plenty of congenial rests; a rushed intake before grief in bar 31 seemed highly intrusive. The central He gave His back to the smiters would have gained considerably from a general elevation – in dynamic, in attack, in consonantial ferocity – but the Muffats compensated with plenty of bowing bite here.
Then the focus shifted to the chorus and something might have been made of the start to Surely He hath borne if only the ensemble hadn’t smoothed out the composer’s crisp setting of the piece’s first word; but the whole segment was sanded back into blandness. And with his stripes is admittedly uninspiring, a fugato with little to capture the imagination, and the St. Laurence group realised its dour character appropriately. But the atmosphere improved at All we like sheep which showed some humour in all that straying, climaxing in a moment of magic with an a cappella reading of the last phrase: the iniquity of us all. I believe I’ve experienced this same choral isolation in previous performances but none as breath-catching as here.
Goodwin returned for a striking All they that see Him, prefacing yet another chorus, He trusted in God, which is yet a further set of pages where the rhetoric becomes prosaic and the temptation to work through it at full throttle is hard to resist – as proved to be the case here where solidity outweighed complexity of phrasing. Goodwin returned for the Thy rebuke hath broken/Behold and see double, both carried off with impeccable serenity and security. Anna Fraser provided the compliment with He was cut off/ But thou didst not leave; her enunciation not as lucid as the tenor’s, she seemed rough and ready in some passages, the whole spoiled by her mangling of the song’s final word into kerruption.
With Lift up your heads, the chorus’s sopranos are split into two parts for 30 bars; the effect is a loss of impetus in most choirs and the Laurentians fell into the general mould. Still, when the usual SATB was re-established, the top line made a brave crescendo showing from their exposed the Lord of Hosts in bar 55 up to the resumption of homophony in bar 62. Then we lost a chunk of the score: Unto which of the angels tenor recitative, Let all the angels chorus, the alto’s Thou art gone up, another chorus in The Lord gave the word, and the How beautiful are the feet song were all omitted. After a brief alto recitative, we heard a solid and respectable Their sound is gone out chorus, although the male lines seemed occasionally under-represented.
There followed an attacca on bass Greco’s Why do the nations song where his vocal rhythmic ducks and drakes gave a peculiar uncertainty to this stern rage aria. Nonetheless, this mildly truncated version (without the recitative insert) held attention for its energy. I couldn’t work out why the singer avoided the four note rise across bars 91 and 92; possibly confusion, perhaps fatigue. Whatever the case, another attacca led us into Let us break their bonds which action the chorus threatened to do with initial inertia. Goodwin returned for He that dwelleth in heaven/Thou shalt break them, the latter resonant and splendidly controlled from a singer who knows when and where to take breaths that make sense of the vocal line.
Ending Part the Second is the chorus Hallelujah, in which the soloists joined for some reason; it was (you may say) satisfactory if a tad overblown. Anna Fraser tended to slow down the pace of I know that my Redeemer liveth but Allchurch restored power quickly enough. More of those odd stops for breath came up during her at the latter day upon the earth passage. We also had an unexpected (and rare for this performance) cadenza on the last setting of fruits in bar 151; what that added to this stately piece is beyond me.
The most effective segments of Since by man came when the chorus worked without accompaniment, in the Grave phrases; by this stage, however, the top line was fading while the men found renewed oomph. Then Greco gave us the final solo in Behold, I tell you a mystery/The trumpet shall sound in the latter of which the aforementioned instrument enjoyed two palpable errors during the initial ritornello. A breadth of mobile vocal line quavers was interrupted for the sake of a breath between bars 60 and 65 and the singer moved the low B up an octave at bar 138 for no apparent reasons of either audibility or taste. The middle For this corruptible segment of the aria was omitted.
So were the alto recitative Then shall be brought to pass, the alto/tenor duet O death, where is thy sting?, the But thanks be to God chorus, and the soprano solo If God be for us. We moved straight to the final choruses (soloists also taking part) with Worthy is the Lamb which gratified in its imposing largo sections and the clarity of Blessing and honour even if the singers didn’t complement the timpani’s pounding; and the final Amen which was surprisingly clear in texture. But you waited in vain for that spine-tingling moment in bar 80 (151) when the sopranos cut through the turmoil with their top A; it was there, of course, but not hurled out with sufficient conviction.
So a reasonable Messiah, but not a memorable one. It confused me for most of the night because of the dichotomy between a period chamber orchestra of considerable skill and a choir of conservative bent; I’m not sure that the results of that fusion were calculated to satisfy anyone except either the charitable or the undiscerning. Anybody would like to give approbation for the effort involved; yet that’s impossible to confer honestly. If you’re going to put yourself in the public eye, you have to have a reason for doing so; you could have something original to offer by way of interpretation, or you might have a high level of expertise in the Baroque. Too often, I felt that this reading was marking time, constrained by an unresolved interpretative vision.