Two Edinburgh Concerts: A Classical Miscellany and an Exquisite Messiah

20/12/2016

The RSNO Christmas Concert: Members of the RSNO Chorus and Junior Chorus, Daniel Portman (narrator), Andrew Watt (treble soloist), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Christopher Bell (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 18.11.2016. (SRT)

Every December Christopher Bell, most regularly seen as a chorus director, dresses up in an implausible suit, practices his innuendos and mounts the podium to direct the RSNO in their annual Christmas concert. Bell’s huge musical experience means that he knows what he’s doing, and he gauges the balance of the compere and the absurdist just about right. His programme was neatly curated this year, featuring a selection of music that appears on their new CD (which he shamelessly plugged throughout), much of which was new to me but is really attractive both in the context of a concert like this and, I’m sure, for repeated listening. Malcolm Arnold’s The Holly and the Ivy works through a number of carols in a manner that reminded me of Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, and the chorus joined in for a selection, including Paul Campbell’s very effective Christmas Carol Fantasy. Steve King’s new Dream Song almost got lost in the hyperactive second half, though I liked Robert Wendell’s Little Bolero Boy, which is just what its name suggests.

Of course, we were all compelled to join in, sometimes in singing carols like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, or songs like Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We jiggled our phone lights during Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride and listened patiently through Bell’s exhaustive – and exhausting – explanation of what we were supposed to do for The Young Austrian (don’t ask).

One annual fixture on the programme is the film of The Snowman with a narrator (this time the Glasgow actor Daniel Portman who features in Game of Thrones), a treble soloist, and Howard Blake’s score played live by the orchestra. Often at this time of year familiarity breeds some contempt, but it’s hard to resist the charm of a programme like this, and for a regular season concert-goer there’s something intrinsically appealing about the more relaxed feel and welcoming atmosphere

Handel, Messiah: Mhairi Lawson (soprano), James Laing (alto), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Roland Wood (bass), Dunedin Consort, John Butt (director and harpsichord), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 19.12.2016. (SRT)

Most big towns across Britain will have a Messiah to go to this Christmas, but Edinburgh is especially lucky to have the Dunedin Consort to perform theirs. (They also did it in Perth and Glasgow, and take it to London on December 20th.)

The Dunedin are global leaders in Baroque repertoire and, under the director John Butt, they have set down recordings of big pieces like Messiah in versions that encapsulate the very best of 21st century period practice. Gratifyingly, they’re every bit as good in the flesh as they are on their recording. Butt’s small band (11 strings) and chorus (3 to a part) create a sound that is as focused and as exquisite as an ivory jewel box. It’s small, certainly, but it hits like a laser beam, and the balance of the musicians and singers is perfectly judged. The instrumental texture really comes to life in moments like “For he is like a refiner’s fire”, where the strings shimmer and shudder like a controlled earthquake, or the consoling violins that offer celestial balm as they accompany “Come unto him” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Paul Sharp’s gleaming trumpet solo was all the more welcome for being so long delayed, and Alan Emslie eked every ounce of drama out of his natural timps.

Having a chorus of twelve meant that the line between solo and ensemble all but dissolved, and the audibility of the inner textures was a great gain. Following his usual practice, Butt drew his soloists from the chorus, all of whom were excellent.  Mhairi Lawson’s bright, pearly soprano brought beautiful lightness to her slower arias while being utterly in command of the coloratura in “Rejoice greatly.” James Laing’s alto had an ethereal quality that was unique in the evening, and I found his “He was despised” deeply moving. Nicholas Mulroy made an earthy, characterful tenor who drew all the drama out of the recitatives, and Roland Wood’s bass was rich, dark and nutty, providing earthy contrast with the other soloists. He was also the one most comfortable with ornamenting, even though his elaborations for the da capo section of “The trumpet shall sound” were so outrageous as to generate huge grins from the rest of the chorus.

Scotland will have other Messiahs this Christmas, but I doubt you’ll find any as clipped, precise and thoroughly thought through as this one.

Simon Thompson

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