Butt, Dunedin Consort and Soloists Charm with Lean and Subtle Messiah

20/12/2017

Handel, Messiah: Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Emma Lewis (alto), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Edward Grint (bass), Dunedin Consort / John Butt (harpsichord), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 19.12.2017. (SRT)

I’ve said before that one of the best musical things about living in Edinburgh is that our annual pre-Christmas Messiah is given by none other than the world-renowned Dunedin Consort, and that is a thing of joy. John Butt uses period instruments and lean, slimmed-down forces: 11 strings, including continuo, plus a chorus of 12 that includes the soloists. This isn’t exactly unique but it still creates a sound-world for Messiah that is as bright as a button and utterly refreshing for those of us who have known the work for years.

The biggest gains came in the choruses. For unto us a Child is born bounced along as though it had come freshly from the composer’s pen, and the glorious counterpoint of the final Amen was translucent and clean. Similarly, the sequence of choruses that open the Passion scene of Part Two had a brilliant clarity of attack and powerful narrative purpose. You can get that with only twelve singers, but for it to work you also need to have a band of the right size, and the proportions complemented one another perfectly. It meant that key dramatic moments, such as the appearance of the trumpets in the Nativity scene, were noticeable in their subtlety, adding a lovely touch of spice to the texture without any need to be too assertive.

The proportions also meant that there was space to enjoy the individuality of the soloists, and there was plenty of that on show. Soprano Mhairi Lawson is a veteran of many Dunedin performances, and she brings an emotional maturity to the music that is very compelling. I also loved the subtlety of her ornamentations, often in throwaway moments, such as the way the angel articulates the word “saviour” in the announcement to the Shepherds. Emma Lewis has a commanding alto voice which was occasionally a little squally in the coloratura of But who may abide but was just right for He was despised and was very moving in Come unto him. Edward Grint has a touch of gravel to his bass voice and was a bit pressed during the quick-fire semiquavers of Why do the nations, but he made up for it in an impressive The trumpet shall sound. Best of all, however, was Hugo Hymas’ gorgeous lyric tenor, who brought a touch of honey to all his solos, as well as some beautiful humanity, consoling in Part One, but deeply poignant at the mid-point of Part Two.

Simon Thompson

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