NZSO: Messiah

Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
The Tudor Consort

Saturday 10 December 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Graham Abbott, conductor
Madeleine Pierard, soprano
Christopher Field, countertenor
Henry Choo, tenor
James Clayton, bass

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Messiah (The Sacred Oratorio) HWV 56 – George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

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The Messiah is a much-loved item in the concert repertoire – and particularly at Christmastime. I have heard – and played – at least a dozen ‘Messiah‘s. The conductor of this performance, Graham Abbott, has more than 70 Messiah’s under his belt (or his baton) and understandably he was very comfortable, and capable, at the podium.

The performance was a ‘mixed bag’ and I don’t mean that disparagingly. It was almost an aural potpourri.

The setup was authentically Baroque. The choir was 39 voices and their diction and articulation were magnificent – especially with the tempo that Graham Abbott inspired in several choruses.  Accordingly the NZSO was reduced to a chamber orchestra: six Violins I, six Violins II (and mostly they played together anyway), four Violas,  three Cellos, two Double Basses, two oboes, one bassoon, two trumpets, a tympani, a chamber organ and a harpsichord. The tympani was authentic too – no pedal – and I suspect the trumpets were in D (higher pitched) not B flat. The strings attacked the Overture with light but quick bows and very little vibrato. The soloists included a countertenor instead of the alto – very Baroque. The tempos were – mostly – upbeat and energised.

But the tenor and the soprano had very strong vibratos and broad dynamic ranges that were not Baroque at all, and several times the strings were infected with demonstrative  forceful passages that were almost Romantic. The tenor, Henry Choo, was impressive – but miscast, I think. The juxtaposition of the countertenor with the soprano (‘He shall feed His flock…’) and the tenor (‘O death, where is thy sting?‘) was not very comfortable. My pick of the soloists was the bass, James Clayton – beautiful timbre, breath control to spare, robust tone.

Another feature of the the Baroque technique is ornamentation especially with the da capo form when the themes have returned. It seemed that the soloists – and the orchestra – ‘evolved’ their ornamentation over the performance. The first six or eight sections were relatively barren of aural adornment but over time they emerged. It was like the performers inspired each other and in the end their ornamentations were sublime – especially from the soprano, Madeleine Pierard. At times her voice was quite ethereal.

Accuracy was the catch phrase for this performance. There were one or two slips in intonation but that was mostly the wide-ranging tessituras and the position of the various instruments: the beginning aria of the soprano and the lower strings, or the bass and the trumpet in ‘The trumpet shall sound…‘.
The NZSO was impeccable as always and some early-music experts too: James Tibbles, harpsichord and Douglas Mews, chamber organ. But I have to remark that most of the NZSO players were ‘rejigged’, promoted from the back benches. It was almost like the All Blacks team, circa: 2013-2016 – the depth of talent in the players!
The Tudor Consort was exquisite. Their intonation, dynamics, breath control, their blended sound was splendid. When the conductor demanded a quick tempo they responded magnificently. ‘All we, like sheep have gone astray…‘ was particularly fine and the  ‘turned‘ was extraordinarily convoluted example of Handel aural word-painting. Their performance of the ‘For unto us a child is born...’;  ‘Let us break their bonds asunder…’; ‘Worthy is the Lamb...’ , and – judiciously – the ‘Hallelujah‘ were some of the best renditions I have heard anywhere.

I have to admit, the first numbers after the interval were suspect to my ear. The countertenor began ‘He was despised and rejected of men…’ with glissandos and swoops – almost like a Bille Holliday number. The orchestra followed suit. The tempo was pedestrian too. Luckily, that was a momentary lapse.

The Michael Fowler Centre was not ideal for this performance. It should have a more intimate setting – a church (but acoustics are mostly difficult there) or the old Wellington Town Hall. It was odd to stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus – it seemed not appropriate some how, but the traditions overruled my sensibilities.

Enjoyable – yes.
Satisfying – yes.
Inspirational – always.
My favourite performance – no. Maybe in the top five (especially for the choir and the orchestra – outstanding).
Would I go to another performance of the Messiah? Unquestionably and unequivocally.

 

 

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