Switzerland Handel, Messiah: Mary Bevan (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (alto), Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Gabrieli Consort, Kammerorchester Basel / Paul McCreesh (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 18.12.2021. (JR)
What better just in the run up to Christmas than a Messiah with an experienced British conductor, fine English-speaking soloists and a premium vocal ensemble?
Messiah, this musical behemoth, premièred in Dublin in 1742 as a ‘grand musical entertainment’, was composed in a remarkable 24 days, although Handel made some use of his back catalogue. Italian operas were in demise at the time and Handel was fighting bankruptcy with his opera company; luckily, he turned his hand to oratorios and his finances were saved. Messiah was, however, considered too irreligious for the theologians, yet too sacred for the secular world. Nevertheless, no festive concert season, at least in the English-speaking world, can now be complete without a performance. Although it is performed regularly all over the UK, by amateur and professional singers alike, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is preferred in German-speaking lands – for obvious reasons.
One really needs, I think, a quartet of English mother-tongue singers and a British choir to make Charles Jennens’s text sound clear. (I have sung it with German-speakers and squirmed at ‘For the mouse of the Lord has spoken it’). Paul McCreesh is, by now, one of the grandfathers of period practice and has trained his Gabrieli Consort to the highest possible standard. The choir consisted of 22 singers; five basses, five tenors, six sopranos and six altos (two of them male). Of course it was not always thus: In 1926 Henry Wood conducted a performance at London’s Crystal Palace with 3,000 singers and 500 in the orchestra, modern instruments of course. These heavy, slow, massive interpretations continued with the muscular Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent with the Huddersfield Choral Society; the audience wanted the ground to shake.
McCreesh was one of the first, in the last part of the last century, along with Trevor Pinnock and John Eliot Gardiner (as he then was) to break the mould, with a very small choir and period instruments. McCreesh’s performance was expectedly crisp, lean and extremely fast. He is a most elegant conductor. The first part just flew by. There were some longueurs in the later parts, as McCreesh chose to throw in some repeats and include some duller sections others omit. He needed no score, the music is in his DNA. The male soloists needed no scores either, and it was soon clear they had huge experience in their parts and slightly overshadowed their female counterparts. Benjamin Hulett was perfection in ‘Comfort ye’ and ‘Ev’ry valley’ which opens the work. Ashley Riches was impressive throughout, especially in ‘The people that walked in darkness’ where he plumbed the darkest depths of his bottom register. ‘Why do the nations’ was masterly controlled at speed. His ‘The trumpet shall sound’ was imperious.
Caitlin Hulcup, an Australian alto, was a fairly late stand-in for Helen Charleston and took a while to warm up: the ‘refiner’s fire’ was not set alight. Hulcup was however up to scratch for her moving aria ‘He was despised’, a most expressive rendition. Mary Bevan’s pure, angelic soprano lit up her aria ‘Rejoice greatly’, and was most tender in the duet ‘He shall feed his flock’; her ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was – for me – a vocal highlight.
The chorus were just phenomenal, I could almost hear every individual voice; the coloratura passages were expertly handled, even if McCreesh’s lightning speeds took them to their limit. The famous choruses ‘And he shall purify’, ‘His yoke is easy’. ‘For unto us a child is born’ and ‘All we like sheep’ were all sprightly and crisp. The Hallelujah chorus is the only part where, personally, I would prefer a much bigger sound, but that is a very minor quibble – you cannot have everything. To listen to the sopranos and tenors soar over the top of the stave in their final ‘Amen’ was a pure delight.
McCreesh did not bring over his Gabrieli Players, perhaps because of Covid restrictions, but used the excellent Basel Chamber Orchestra; I am sure McCreesh did not miss his home-grown players. In particular I would single out the concertmaster Israeli/Canadian Daniel Bard and the principal trumpet Simon Lilly.
The audience rightly gave the performers a standing ovation. We did not stand, however, for the Hallelujah Chorus: apparently, musical historians are now agreed that George III did not stand up for it either – indeed they don’t even think he was there!
Messiah is Handel’s gift to the world and binds together communities of listeners of singers. Witness the annual scratch performance in the Royal Albert Hall with 3,500 singers, with profits going to charity. In these rather gloomy, locked-down times, Messiah is a message of hope. We need that in these times. Merry Christmas!