Messiah – a truly transcendental masterpiece

Handel’s Messiah must surely be one of the most popular choral works of all time, and on Saturday 14 December the Westmorland Hall was almost full to capacity to hear the work performed professionally by the Dunedin Consort under its distinguished Director, John Butt.

The Dunedin Consort is Scotland’s leading baroque ensemble and so what we heard on Saturday was probably more approaching the type of performance Handel would have expected around 1742 when the work was first performed. On stage was a small orchestra of only eleven string players plus harpsichord, organ, two trumpets and timpani. This small ensemble was matched by a choir of only twelve singers, four of whom stepped out from the chorus to deliver the many recitatives and arias scattered throughout the work.

Performance fashions for baroque music have changed radically in the last 40 years Most amateur choral societies performing Messiah today will no doubt have much larger forces available than in Handel’s day. But even then, the numbers taking part in his great work increased. In 1754, for example, it is known that 22 singers and 38 orchestral players performed the work at the Foundling Hospital, and after the composer’s death gargantuan (and no doubt ponderous) performances took place in Westminster Abbey. How would Handel have reacted to these one wonders? But, under the influence of scholar–performers such as Joshua Rifkin in America and Andrew Parrott in the UK, the fashion for small forces is gaining ground with professional groups, allowing for faster speeds and cleaner articulation.

How you like your Messiah is a question that might be put to listeners. Some would argue that much of the grandeur and drama of the large choruses is lost when performed by only three voices to a part; others might argue that a small-scale performance gives more clarity, and this was certainly the case with Dunedin’s Kendal performance.

Playing on baroque instruments, the strings were able to articulate their rapid passage work with a clarity difficult to achieve with modern instruments and the effect was electrifying. There was energy in their playing and clear articulation; phrases were beautifully shaped with a sense of direction.

With their professional training, the singers were able to articulate Handel’s roulades of semiquavers with seeming ease: choruses like ‘For unto us a child is born’ and ‘His Yoke is easy’ were performed with a lightness that cannot be achieved with a large chorus.

The downside of a small chorus, however, is that three voices may not match each other, and there were occasions when the three sopranos failed to blend, resulting in some strident sounds in the upper register. The four soloists sang with great expression releasing all the passion and tenderness in Handel’s wonderful arias and adding baroque-style ornamentation when appropriate.

How fortunate we were to be able to hear this work performed by a group who had the instrumental and vocal technique to meet Handel’s many demands in this truly transcendental masterpiece.

Clive Walkley