A predictably powerful Edinburgh Messiah from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort

16/12/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel: Rachel Redmond (soprano), Jess Dandy (alto), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Dunedin Consort / John Butt (director/harpsichord). Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 16.12.2019. (SRT)

Dunedin Consort (c) Jen Owens

HandelMessiah

As the seasons roll around, so does another Edinburgh Messiah with the Dunedin Consort. It is largesse indeed to have this to rely on every year and, like many freely bestowed treasures, it’s also easy to neglect; so several things jumped out at me this year to make me sit up and take notice.

The first was the stage layout. The Dunedin approach is lean and lithe, with only eleven strings and a chorus of twelve, from which the soloists are drawn. No doubt it has been like this before, but I noticed for the first time that John Butt arranged the forces with the orchestra all on the left of the stage and singers all on the right. Maybe I noticed it for the first time because, for this concert, I sat in the middle stalls and, for a while, the antiphonal effect bothered me, like listening on a pair of slightly wonky headphones.

I stopped noticing after a while, though, not least because what was on offer was so good. This team know this work inside out: they perform it every year, all over the place, including this year their first trip to Colombia, so they know what they are doing. Director John Butt, in particular, provides dozens of little insights to enliven the textures and remind the audience that they’re listening to a crew of experts. In ‘For unto us’, for example, the violins provide a burst of glory at ‘Wonderful Counsellor’, and the words ‘Prince of Peace’ are so beautifully clipped as to provide an unarguable full stop. The huge rit. at the end of the ‘Amen’ chorus, meanwhile, has a powerful effect completely out of proportion to its simplicity, making the final pages an entirely appropriate musical consummation.

Convinced as I am but the Dunedin approach, a part of my heart will always long for more players and singers on the stage. The gains of drama and transparency are plain to hear, though. The crack team of strings can massage a beautiful ‘Comfort ye’, scythe through the refiner’s fire, provide a scourging soundtrack to the Passion music of Part Two, and even provide appropriate heft to ‘And the glory of the Lord’. If the chorus are small in number then it is exhilarating to hear such inner light shed on the textures and, particularly in the fugues, there is a lot to make the ears prickle.

The standout among the soloists was Jess Dandy, a proper alto with a deliciously warm chest voice and unique lower colour. In contrast, Rachel Redmond provided crystalline clarity for the soprano part, with silky beauty in ‘Come unto him’ sitting alongside impressive coloratura in ‘Rejoice greatly’. Marcus Farnsworth, a late stand-in baritone, sang with declamatory power in the recitatives and honeyed authority in his arias. I struggle to love Nicholas Mulroy’s tenor – to me it sounds recessed and half-swallowed – but that is an entirely personal thing, and he used it with great agility in his solos.

The cumulative effect, therefore, was predictably powerful; powerful enough, in fact, to get the polite Edinburgh audience cheering, something they very rarely do, particularly in the Queen’s Hall! Don’t expect them to stand for the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, though: that would be a bridge too far.

Simon Thompson

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