SCO / Emelyanychev
City Halls, Glasgow
With the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union giving its annual performance of the work in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Sunday, re-scheduled from the early days of the New Year because of pandemic restrictions then, there has been ample opportunity for Central-belt Scots to hear Handel’s oratorio masterpiece, Messiah, in the run-up to Easter.
Unarguably, the work sits better at that point in the Christian calendar in terms of its libretto – the Nativity actually gets pretty short shrift after the “Pastoral Symphony” in the middle of Part 1 – but Messiah is much less a narrative of the life of Christ than an expression of some of the knottier philosophical issues presented by the faith, as outlined in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It is not to diminish the achievement of Charles Jennens, who supplied the composer with the clever text, to note that Handel himself was as well-versed in these arguments and highly Biblically literate. That is why he was able to set the words so successfully.
Led by Stephanie Gonley, who contributed some fine solo playing of her own, this edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra included some old friends, some early music specialists, and the keyboard talents of both the Edinburgh Choral’s director Michael Bawtree and the newly-announced director of the RSNO Chorus Stephen Doughty, alongside the harpsichord of SCO Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.
If the bouncy excitability of Emelyanychev seemed a little over-exuberant in the instrumental opening bars, there were some inspired touches in the conductor’s interpretation later on, notably the bagpipe-like drone with which he began the aforementioned “Pifa”, which here became more a stately dance. His ornamentation at the keyboard was a sparkling foil to the extra grace-notes the soloists added to their recitatives and arias.
They were a stellar quartet too. Tenor Hugo Hymas brought something of the personality of Bach’s Evangelist to his role, while Matthew Brook was as terrifically dramatic as only he can be on some of the most theatrical music of the work – and, of course, Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together? seemed especially pertinent.
But there was magnificent animation in the performance of counter-tenor Xavier Sabata as well, with a memorably huge “Shame” in the middle of He Was Despised, and Anna Dennis revelled in some of Emelyanychev’s brisk tempos. The soprano was in spectacular voice, very possibly the best I have heard her, with Part 1’s Rejoice Greatly as precise as it was speedy and Part 3’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth devastating.
Chorus director Gregory Batsleer has the SCO singers – at 50 voices a large chamber choir as much as a chorus – drilled to perfection. There were some startling moments from them throughout the performance, including a very gentle start to All We Like Sheep, a wonderfully crisp “Let us break” from the nine tenors after Brook’s furious “Nations”, and the pinpoint dynamics and pitch of the unaccompanied Since by man came death in the final section.
Pictured: Anna Dennis