Tag Archives: Messiah

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.

Ken Walton

Messiah/Ayr Choral Union

When awards are made for the contributions to the beleaguered worlds of music and the arts during the health crisis, the name of baritone Andrew McTaggart should be one of the first on the list.

As a singer he was one of the first musicians back out on the road as part of the small team that took Scottish Opera’s Pop-Up versions of three very different shows to outdoor venues across the country when the weather still made such an exercise an optimistic possibility. And as a choir director he has kept the enthusiastic amateur voices of Ayr Choral Union exercised at a time when meeting together in a room has been impossible.

That project and purpose continues, but on Sunday the choir, four young soloists and a fine compact chamber ensemble came together online to perform Handel’s best-known oratorio in a manner that set its own template.

There are many ways to make a Messiah, from the small professional group giving a meticulous historically-informed performance through to Come & Sing versions for massed untrained voices. McTaggart conducted one that used the technology everyone is learning to embrace, YouTube and the Zoom platform, to combine elements of both in a communal experience.

His soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, contralto Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and bass Colin Murray – had been leading sectional training online to supplement McTaggart’s own coaching of the choir in a time of social distancing, and for Sunday’s culminating performance they were also the onscreen, one-voice-to-a-part chorus, self-shot from where ever they happened to have been living at the time. The solo recitatives and arias, however, had been filmed in one session, in the same space as the socially-distanced twelve-piece ensemble, with McTaggart conducting.

The elements had been assembled for a full performance in which the sound quality was quite remarkable, and the pictures were more than just the icing on the cake because McTaggart was directing not only the people visible on screen, but also his 100 or more choristers singing along at home.

It was a compact version of the score, clocking in at well under two hours, but all the essential elements were there and the playing of the instrumentalists (with some well-known faces from Scottish music) and the performances of the young soloists were top class. Black and Cousland added some fine ornamentation, while Hewitson and Murray tended more towards playing with a pure-toned straight bat, while all four combined on Part Two’s sequence of choruses and then the Hallelujah in a way that suggested some very skilful sound engineering.

In some parts of Ayrshire it was perhaps possible to wander down the street and hear their voices leading members of the Choral Union who were joining in lustily in front of their own laptops and televisions. In the charitable tradition of the work, as the choir’s current President Kate Wilson pointed out, all donations supporting the performance are going to Help Musicians UK, which has plenty need to meet at the present time. McTaggart and Ayr Choral Union did Handel proud.
Keith Bruce

Image: Andrew McTaggart ©Julie Howden