ERCU Messiah / MacMillan
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
TO the ears of those who have heard John Butt whisk the Dunedin Consort through Part One of Handel’s Messiah in well under an hour, Sir James MacMillan’s conducting debut of the work will not have sounded very pacey at all.
Truth to tell, the older members of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union – a choir that now boasts a healthy number of younger faces – have probably been asked to sing their annual New Year staple faster in some pre-pandemic performances. But if the unhurried approach MacMillan took denied his stated intention when he spoke to VoxCarnyx before the concert, that was probably for the best. What we heard was a very expressive, but never bombastic, Messiah where the story-telling took precedence over any darker liturgical message.
The choir can take a great deal of the credit for that, dispatching the trickier choruses with panache, only coming apart slightly in Part Two’s penultimate one, Let us break their bonds, but recovering quickly. Edinburgh’s Pro-Musica Orchestra were also a crucial factor in the light touch, fielding RSNO and Scottish Opera players alongside the freelances under the leadership of the Grit Orchestra’s Greg Lawson, and with ERCU director Michael Bawtree at the harpsichord and John Kitchen in a telling supporting role on the Usher Hall organ.
But the key ingredient for many in the completely filled hall on Monday afternoon was the quartet of young soloists, three of them – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Catherine Backhouse, and baritone Paul Grant – born in Edinburgh, and, alongside Royal Scottish Conservatoire-trained tenor Kieran White, all representatives of a new generation of highly-accomplished young voices.
For them, the old distinctions between big choral society Messiahs with hundreds of singers and historically-informed chamber choir recitals of the work are ancient history. What they have learned to do is give their own best performance of the oratorio, individually and collectively, in the most communicative way possible.
That is exactly what happened for the rapt audience in the capital from White’s gently-crooned “Comfort ye my people” onwards, Grant upping the ante with his sharply-enunciated shaking of all the nations, before Backhouse’s run of arias foretelling the birth of Christ, rich in her lower register with a delicious flourish at the end of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire”.
The narrative stepped up another notch with the shift to the Gospel texts and soprano Hewitson, who delivered the story as if she was announcing the good news for the very first time to an intimate circle of friends.
The flow of nice interpretative detail continued after the interval in Backhouse’s He Was Despised and the sequence of choruses from the same chapter of Isaiah. This choir demonstrates a dynamic range that is a rare skill among large amateur choruses, and MacMillan made full use of that.
Hewitson’s How beautiful are the feet was a little jewel amongst those choruses, and both she and Grant – on Why do the nations? and The trumpet shall sound – gave excellent accounts of the best known arias in Parts Two and Three.
With all the usual cuts to the full score, this was not an epic Messiah, and nor was it an especially “authentic” one, but it was a performance that everyone in the capacity house savoured from start to finish.