Dunedin Consort / Butt
Perth Concert Hall
Given its headline-grabbing Dunkirk spirit at the start of the health emergency, it might be fitting, although no less regrettable, if the Dunedin Consort’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah prove to be the last live concerts the sector feels able to undertake in Scotland for a while once again.
As it happened, the chamber group’s artistic director John Butt was simultaneously audible on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday evening, conducting the same work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus, in a performance recorded a week previously. It seems unlikely that he tore through Part 1 of the oratorio with those forces quite as briskly as Perth heard it.
In his usual style, standing at the harpsichord, the conductor brought the first section to the interval in under an hour, leaving time to perform some of the music that is often cut from Parts 2 and 3. (I should add that this equation is my own, and may not be how the University of Glasgow’s Gardiner Professor of Music sees it.)
With the soloists stepping out from a choir of 12 and the same number of players joining Butt on the platform – with trumpets and timpani added later – the compact forces are nimble but never feeble. It is easy to identify individual voices in the choruses but at the same time the blending is mostly spot on. There were a couple of lumpy moments in Part 2, and a technical problem with Nicholas Wearne’s chamber organ also necessitated a brief hiatus, but that sequence of the work also provided one of this performance’s revelations.
Although the words of the New Testament version are rarely used, Charles Jennens’ libretto and Handel’s music demonstrate the switch of allegiance in the crowd in Jerusalem in the Easter story in the singing of the choruses – and that piece of structural cleverness was superbly clear here and part of a fine choral acting performance that was at the heart of the concert.
Of the four soloists, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and soprano Mhairi Lawson led the way in their storytelling style, the latter drawing a fine distinction between that job in Part 1 and the personal introspective arias later on. They also added the most individual ornamentation when appropriate, while bass Robert Davies played things with more of a straight bat, stentorian of tone. Alto Owen Willetts also has a powerful voice, fading a little at the bottom of his range, and his diction was perhaps not as sharp as that of the others, although the clarity overall was exceptional.
As their first performance of the work in a while, this Dunedin Messiah was perhaps not entirely “run-in” when measured against the group’s own high standards, but if it turns out to the last live music anyone in the hall hears for a while, they will surely consider themselves blessed.
Pictured: Mhairi Lawson by Lloyd Smith