Monday 20 December 2021

Focused intensity and sheer joyful elan: John Butt and Dunedin Consort perform Handel's Messiah at Wigmore Hall

Handel Messiah; Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall
Handel Messiah - Dunedin Consort, John Butt at Wigmore Hall
(taken from live-stream)

Handel Messiah; Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A small-scale consort performance of Handel's oratorio, but one lacking nothing in power and intensity

When Handel premiered Messiah in Dublin in 1742, he had a choir of 16 boys and 16 men (from St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals in Dublin) with an orchestra of strings, two trumpets, timpani and organ (his own, shipped from London). The male soloists were taken from the choir, with the soprano and contralto solos being sung by Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber, who we presume sang in the choruses as well, according to Handel's standard practice. The premiere was a charity concert and was extremely popular and so as to accommodate as many as possible "gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses". 700 people crammed into the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street.

I have no idea how big the Great Music Hall was (only the entrance façade survives, see Hidden Dublin website) but we have to assume that with 700 people at capacity, it was smaller than Wigmore Hall. With a choir of 32 (or 34) singers, strings, timpani, organ and trumpets, this means that the big choruses must have been extremely loud, and the whole would have had an 'in your face' intensity that we usually lack in Messiah performances in bigger halls. And perhaps, we might consider that the way the number of performers in the work tended to expand to fit the available space, even in the 18th century, might be partly to recreate this sense of intensity.

These thoughts came to me as we experienced Handel's Messiah performed at Wigmore Hall on 18 December 2021, with John Butt directing the Dunedin Consort, which featured an ensemble of eleven strings (led by Matthew Truscott), organ, harpsichord, trumpets and timpani, soloists Mhairi Lawson, Owen Willetts, Nicholas Mulroy and Robert Davies along with a ripieno group of six singers who joined the soloists for the choruses. Thus making ten singers, who ranged across the front of the stage in the choruses; the result, with ten adult mature professional voices, had the sort of volume and intensity that we might expect Handel would have recognised.

I don't want to make too much of the volume, this was a superbly subtle account of the work and the choruses were also some of the best sung that I have ever come across in my nearly 50 years of attending Messiah performances. But it also had a focused intensity that arose from being in such close proximity in a relatively small concert hall.

The overture was crisp and vivid, with the double dotting bringing a real sense of grandeur. Nicholas Mulroy began with a lovely lyric tenor and fine mezza voce, yet with something very definite about the projection of the words. Excitement and expectation built in 'Ev'ry valley' with fine runs. His sequence at the beginning of part two moved between high drama and the intimate, for 'Thy rebuke hath broken His heart', whilst 'Thou shalt break them' was strong, with powerful rhythms and vivid orchestral playing, and preceded by trenchant recitative.

Owen Willetts brought a sense of operatic drama to his recitatives, and in Part One, 'O thou that tellest' combined a lovely bounce with a richly upholstered vocal line. Willetts contribution at the end of Part One moved from vibrant recitative to a strongly shaped 'He shall feed his flock'. In Part Two, 'He was despised' was almost fleet, but never without strong expression with a lovely combination of shapely phrasing and rich tones, and there was an almost operatic enthusiasm to 'Thou art gone up on high'.. With Part Three performed in full, Willetts was joined by Mulroy for the duet 'O death, where is thy sting', two urgent, vibrant voices.

Bass Robert Davies brought great presence to 'Thus saith the Lord', complemented by dramatic strings. 'For behold, darkness shall cover the earth' moved from mystery to commitment, leading to a vivid, yet steadily paced, account of 'The people that walked in darkness'. In Part Three, 'Behold, I tell you a mystery' was almost confiding, leading to certainty in 'The trumpet shall sound' sung  with warm even tone.

Soprano Mhairi Lawson moved from simplicity, to excitement and drama in her initial sequence in Par One, with an account of 'Rejoice greatly' that featured crisp excitement and terrifically controlled yet vivid runs. In Part Two, 'How beautiful are the feet was poised, whilst she opened Part Three with 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' full of warmth and joy. And it was her engaging warmth that brought things to a close with 'If God be for us'.

One interesting sociological moment. Whilst the audience at the Barbican Hall the previous night [see my review] had largely stood for the 'Hallelujah Chorus' (and tutted those that did not stand), the audience at the Wigmore Hall to a man and woman stayed firmly sitting in their seats. Whilst the practice of standing dates back to Handel's lifetime (it is referenced in a letter of 1756), there is no record of King George II ever attending a performance of Messiah, so the idea that the audience stood because the King did so is apparently unfounded.

In many ways the was the sort of performance of Messiah with forces similar to what Bach might have used for one of his own large-scale works (soloists plus a small group of ripieno singers) and indeed the Dunedin Consort has performed Bach's Mass in B Minor here in a similar manner [see my review]. But works like Messiah are generous enough to warrant exploration, and we have a tendency to get somewhat hidebound and restrict our ideas of what is 'right'. Handel himself never directed a large-scale performance of Messiah and his venues were largely small ones by today's standards so Dunedin Consort's performance was a wonderfully creative response to both the challenge of performing Messiah and the challenge of re-creating Handel's performance style. There was a further aspect to the performance that was non-canonical; as far as I know, Handel never directed a performance of Messiah where 'He was despised' was sung by a male soloist (whether counter-tenor or castrato).

This was a terrific achievement from all concerned, particularly the soloists who sang both their own solo parts and the choruses. This was a finely sung and strongly characterised account of a well-loved work, with Butt and his performers using the smaller scale and fully professional forces to explore the music in strong detail. Any worry that the larger scale moments might lack the sweep of bigger performances was swept away by the control, focused intensity and sheer joyful elan of the performance. It rightly received a standing ovation from the audience.

The concert was live-streamed and is available on the Wigmore Hall's website.

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • Music and meaning: Handel's Messiah from Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge and Britten Sinfonia with conductor David Watkin at the Barbican - concert review
  • Something more raw, that goes back to the origins of the stories: I chat to composer Glen Gabriel about his new album, Norse Mythology - my interview
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  • Meyerbeer's first opera, written when he was just 21, is finally available in a modern recording that enables us to begin to appreciate what we've been missing - record review
  • Celebrating the 300th anniversary of their publication in 1720, Bridget Cunningham records Handel's Eight Great Harpsichord Suites - record review
  • A festive feast of Bach for Christmas: Gabrieli Consort & Players at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Dancing a pas de deux with Tchaikovsky and holidaying in North Africa: rumours swirled around Saint-Saens even before his death - feature
  • Being able to see Brahms as he was at the time: I chat to Jérémie Rhorer about recording historically informed Brahms with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie - interview
  • La Bonne Cuisine: Lotte Betts-Dean and Harry Rylance at Fidelio Cafe on OnJam Lounge - concert review
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