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.
The conductors of Handel’s Messiah in Glasgow and Edinburgh on January 2 talk to Keith Bruce
As young musicians they came to Handel’s masterwork as a trumpet player and a flautist, but this year James MacMillan and Nicholas McGegan are on the podium for the New Year concerts of Messiah in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For one it is a conducting debut, while the other has been part of the revolution in historically-informed performances of the work for more than four decades.
“I went to performances of it as a boy in Cumnock,” remembers MacMillan. “The local choral union was the Kyle Choral Union and they used to put on performances of Messiah and other oratorios. In fact one of my earliest trumpet memories is of playing third trumpet in a performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in New Cumnock when I was 12 or 13 with the Kyle Choral Union. So they performed Messiah as well, with amateur players from around Ayrshire.”
McGegan recalls playing flute in the Prout orchestration of the work when he was at high school in Nottingham, and then being disappointed to find out that Handel had not written flute parts at all.
He was at the harpsichord when he played it in a seminal performance at Westminster Abbey in 1979, under the baton of Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music.
“It was about zero degrees and I was wearing fingerless Bob Cratchit gloves, and soprano Emma Kirkby had thermal underwear underneath her Laura Ashley dress.”
Understandably, however, McGegan recalls that era as a thrilling time when baroque repertoire was being re-thought.
“I ran intro Chris Hogwood at Cambridge in 1970. He was living at the top of a house owned by Sir Nicholas Shackleton, whose collection of wind instruments is now at Edinburgh University. I was loaned an 18th century flute and I went to the library and got hold of a treatise to learn how to play it, so I ended up playing second flute on the first recording of the Academy of Ancient Music.
“It was an exciting time; Trevor Pinnock was also around and a lot of this music was being done for the first time in many years. I was a slightly junior member of the team: Chris and Trevor and John Eliot Gardiner were all about ten years older than me. I played the harpsichord for them and, when necessary, the flute, and I was part of the project.”
It was in the USA that McGegan graduated to conducting the work, in the middle of the following decade.
“I remember directing my first Messiah absolutely to the day. It was December 1986 with the St Louis Symphony and the soprano, as she was then, was the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it was her first Messiah too. She was a remarkable artist and in 91 I was able to record it with her.”
This year McGegan is once again at the helm of the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, with soloists soprano Mhairi Lawson, counter-tenor William Towers, tenor Jamie MacDougall and bass-baritone Stephen Loges. On the same afternoon, composer James MacMillan conducts the work for the first time for Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, where Catriona Hewitson, Catherine Backhouse, Kieran White and Paul Grant are the soloists.
“I sang bits of it later in my student years,” says MacMillan, “but a lot of the music I sang at school and university was earlier and I never sang the big choral union sort of pieces. So preparing for this performance there has been a lot that felt like seeing and hearing it for the first time.
“Some of the arias I really didn’t know and the breadth that Messiah travels over its three parts is incredible, not just from Christmas to the Crucifixion but as a piece of music drama. It really takes you on a journey with a whole range of emotions and moods. I can see now why it established itself as a deeply loved masterpiece.
“The hinterland now is the difference of approach from the big choral union tradition to what the early music world has brought to it, with smaller choirs and a tighter, more authentic instrumental approach.
“All that has to be taken on board and that might be the reason why I’ve never conducted it before, because there is a specialism and scholarship to Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that puts barriers up for the rest of us. My choral music was earlier, unaccompanied music, but most of the orchestral music I’ve conducted in the last 20-odd years or so is later, so coming to Messiah for the first time is a new thing for me.”
At the same time, MacMillan’s own composing life has moved from smaller, unaccompanied motets toward exactly the shape of work that Handel undertook after his operas.
“In recent times I’ve written a lot of big oratorios – the Christmas Oratorio, the St John Passion and the St Luke Passion – and I suppose they acknowledge the historical hinterland of Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s cantatas and passions – it’s all there in the mix. You grow up with this music and it leaves an indelible mark, sometimes subliminally, on a composer’s mind.”
The Covid pandemic had yet to silence choirs around the world when McGegan last conducted in Glasgow, where he thinks he counts as a local boy because of his years as Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera, and the flat he still has in the city’s west end.
“New Year 2020 was the last time I was with the RSNO, just before the pandemic, so a lot of the same people will be playing in the orchestra and I hope some of the audience will be the same too.
“What I do is bring my own orchestra parts, with my bowings, the dynamics and articulation written in. I’ve worked with nearly all the soloists before, either in Messiah or other projects – people like Jamie MacDougall and I go way back, Will Towers and I have done opera together as well as Messiah – so it is like organising a dinner party for friends.
“I first came to Glasgow in 1991 and did The Magic Flute with Scottish Opera two years running. My father was an Edinburgh boy and I had a clutch of rather terrifying great aunts in Morningside, who were horrified that I wanted to work there!
“I had the best time at Scottish Opera, I always enjoyed it. I’ll be 73 next month, but I hope I’ve still got a few Figaros left in me. I did Figaro, Giovanni and Cosi at Scottish Opera and loved every second of it.”
MacMillan may be making his Messiah debut in Edinburgh next week, but he has other concerts of the work upcoming.
“This time is very experimental for me, but I get to do it again a couple of times in December next year in Australia. I have been asked to conduct it with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the week before my Christmas Oratorio. I think they thought if they were having me for one week they might as well have me for two!
“So it is something that will grow as I get to do it a few times. Keeping the pace lively is important and that is something we have all learned from the early music revolution. I’ve taken a couple of rehearsals now and I’ve been delighted how chorusmaster Michael Bawtree has trained the choir. It is very lithe and very light on its feet.
“I’ll bring a composer’s inside view to the process, and whether that’s valuable is for others to decide! I haven’t had a conducting lesson in my life, but I did have a consultation with Sir Colin Davis, who said that I should keep doing what I do, because there is something about a composer’s perspective that is unique. He thought that a contemporary composer’s view of the music of the past is valuable, and I was always encouraged by that.
“And the more I have lived with Messiah, I think there has to be a sense of through-composed travelling and of drama in the performance. I am wondering about whether some of the stopping and starting is really necessary and I might want to push on, so there’s not much hanging about between arias and choruses, and a non-stop feel to where the music is going.”
It is the non-stop sequence of performances of Messiah that McGegan identifies as one of its unique characteristics.
“It is one of the very few pieces I know that has been in more or less continuous performance since it was written. I know some musicologists would disagree, but I just see the basic story of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Christ’s life and passion and the resurrection, with the basic tenets of the religion without delving too deeply into the tricky stuff.
“It’s unusual for Handel because nearly all his oratorios have people singing roles. Jesus does not appear as a singing role and in some ways I think that makes it easier for everybody. It is not a portrait of Jesus, it is a portrait of the idea of the religion.
“Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, chose the texts very carefully to find the words that were easiest to sing and Handel sets those words very carefully. Handel is a master of writing for choirs, but the choruses are actually much more difficult than people who don’t sing realise. It is a masterpiece of very varied choral writing. That’s why people love it so.”
MacMillan also notes the way the work appeals as much to those of no faith as to the devout.
“When Messiah was first performed in the 1700s, I wonder what kind of mood there would have been in the hall. Would people want to applaud?
“How secular was it? How sacred was it? It seems to be a hybrid form that brought together the sacred and the secular in the world of music.”
The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union Messiah begins at noon in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on January 2. The RSNO and RSNO Chorus perform the work from 3pmon the same day at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.