RSNO Messiah / McGegan
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes, from old-fashioned, heavily-populated Edwardian-style marathons that take forever and a day, to the meatless extremes of the ultra-purists who favour briskness and a cast-size that would just about fit into a lift. Thankfully the music is mostly indestructible.
With bouncy septuagenarian Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan in charge of Monday’s traditional New Year performance by the RSNO, Handel’s evergreen oratorio came as a sleek, svelte and stylish package. What really mattered, though, were the alluring intimacies, theatrical subtleties, refreshing surprises and the quietly overwhelming unity he brought to a work that many of this sizeable audience could easily have sung along to.
Some did, like those around me unable to resist joining in the Hallelujah Chorus, clearly imagining a sound in their head far removed from the tuneless grunts that actually emerged. But maybe that’s what Classical Music is missing, that spontaneous urge to go at it Glastonbury-style if the urge takes you. Next we’ll be waving our phone lights to For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.
In truth, it merely reflected the personableness of McGegan’s vision, brought seamlessly to life by a nimble RSNO Chorus, the sprightly bite of a Baroque-sized RSNO, and a superbly matched solo quartet notwithstanding the unexpected presence of Peter Harvey as a last-minute replacement for the advertised bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was ill.
The latter group were a star act. Tenor Jamie MacDougall set the scene with his opening Comfort ye and Every valley, his eyes fixed firmly on the audience rather than the score, immediately establishing a warm and vital connection.
From hereon in, the narrative was foremost, whether issued through the gorgeous willowy countertenor of William Towers (magically enhanced by the delicate darting incision of the strings in For he is like a refiner’s fire), the seraphic purity of Mhairi Lawson’s soprano (thoughtfully changing her garb from angelic white in Part 1 to a more demure black in Parts II & III for such golden reflective moments as her I know that my redeemer liveth), or Peter Harvey’s triumphant The trumpet shall sound.
The chorus, trained by Stephen Doughty, echoed impressively that charisma, negotiating Handel’s contrapuntal trickery with effortless precision. And I did like McGegan’s mischievous quirks in getting them to stand up amusingly at key moments in the soloist’s texts – “The kings of the earth rise up,” for instance.
They presented a neatly balanced front, beautifully blended, words clear as crystal, intently responsive to McGegan’s nuanced direction. As did the lithesome RSNO, pert and essential in its role, quietly supportive yet crucial and characterful at every turn.
Perhaps the most satisfying outcome of this Messiah was the success with which McGegan’s limited forces managed to fill the vastness of this 2000-seater hall, not just with actual sound (there were, to be sure, odd moments where a greater explosion of sound might have been welcomed), but with an expressiveness that genuinely pierced the soul. Granted, there were one or two unsynchronised glitches in Part II, but only passing ones and never so much as to undermine the compelling spirit of this sprightly performance.