RSNO / Curnyn

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Even without the vicissitudes of the pandemic, the RSNO’s annual Messiah has been very much a moveable feast in recent seasons, and this one came to rest in an unaccustomed pre-Christmas slot that is currently more often associated with chamber choir concerts of the work by The Sixteen and Dunedin Consort (who perform it in Perth, Edinburgh and London next week).

At the same time, the gap between the performance styles of a big orchestra-and-chorus Messiah and the historical recreation of its Dublin premiere has also narrowed. With early music man Christian Curnyn on the podium, a compact version of the RSNO – still mostly of regulars – was joined by Mark Hindley at the harpsichord and Chris Nickol on chamber organ for a brisk version of the oratorio using what is probably the briefest permissible version of the score.

Led by Sharon Roffman, the strings and few reeds played their period part in crisp style thoughout, joined at the zenith of Parts 2 and 3 by the trumpets of Chris Hart and Marcus Pope and timpanist Paul Philbert.

The unique selling point of an RSNO Messiah is, of course, its Chorus and this live appearance by the amateur singers of the choir followed many a long month of inactivity thanks to coronavirus. So it was perhaps to be expected that there was something a little tentative about their first chorus And the glory of the Lord and some slightly ragged entries early on. It was not long, however, before they settled into their stride, and by the sequence of choruses in Part 2, culminating in a sparkling All we like sheep, all was well. More than that, here was often some exemplary ensemble singing, with a warmth of tone and balance across the sections – and a sense of unforced effortlessness at any pace or pitch.

All of which provided the ideal context for a very fine quartet of soloists indeed. Soprano Jeni Bern, countertenor Tim Mead, tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass-baritone Matthew Brook were superbly well-matched. All four have fascinatingly varied CVs and shared an expressiveness in their arias that served the narrative drive of the work, and Curnyn’s approach to the music. Mead and Hulett are both pure-toned with power across their ranges – especially impressive in the music for the alto – while Brook and Bern brought a more dramatic edge to their contributions. Brook’s Why do the nations? sounded especially pertinent, while Bern’s I know that my Redeemer liveth was fresh and tastefully ornamented.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Tim Mead by Andy Staples