Handel’s Messiah with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is touted as a “Christmas tradition”, and so it is. It is interesting to read, however, that although the orchestra was founded in 1906, it wasn’t until Christmas Day 1940 that the MSO under Sir Bernard Heinze gave its first performance of this perennial favourite. (Messiah had been the traditional preserve of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic which had been giving performances of it since 1853, and still does.)

Back in 1940 there was little doubt as to how this most popular of oratorios should be performed. Since then, the growth of “historically informed” performance practice has led to a divergence of approaches ranging from “early music” to “blockbuster”; this last category often employing the over-the-top re-orchestrations of Eugene Goossens or the MSO’s own Sir Andrew Davis.

On this occasion the MSO has opted for Handel’s original orchestration, using medium-sized forces, sufficient to fill Hamer Hall. The middle-of-the-road approach to stylistic matters adopted by Dutch conductor, Jan Willem de Vriend reflects the challenges of pulling together a performance of this rather long work at this time of the year, within the constraints of the artists’ and orchestra’s schedule. Assistant Principal Peter Edwards led the orchestra, which at this time of year was augmented by several guest musicians due to the departure of some principals and other players for the holidays. [Editor’s note: it has since been brought to our attention that some musicians were playing in the MSO’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert at the Plenary.]

De Vriend’s conducting style concentrated on the bigger musical picture, and was often concerned with particular features of the score (bringing out an inner part here or chorus accents there) rather than micro-managing articulation or ornamentation. While this paid some dividends, it did at times result in a loss of ensemble and rhythmic drive. Furthermore, treating the work as a succession of set pieces, where the orchestra was mostly given plenty of time to turn pages between numbers dulled any sense of overarching dramatic drive or structure and gave no acknowledgement to the care with which Charles Jennens had assembled the scriptural libretto.

The continuo group was safely entrusted to David Berlin, Principal Cello together with organist Jacob Abela and harpsichordist Donald Nicolson. They did much to help cohere and propel the music. At times I wished the keyboardists to be a little less self-effacing in their work.

As is often the case with a symphony Messiah, the soloists came from a variety of backgrounds. Soprano Jeanine De Bique was born in Trinidad and has been involved in baroque and classical opera; Nicholas Tolputt is a recent countertenor graduate from the Melbourne Conservatorium; Andrew Goodwin is well known in Sydney and Melbourne for his devotion to art song and early music; while bass Stephan Loges is a German-born all-rounder who has worked often in England.

De Bique impressed as an effective story teller, performing all but one of her arias from memory. Her strong, clear voice, coloured by a natural but well controlled vibrato drew listeners into the music. Tolputt on the whole projected his well-rounded voice into the hall’s large spaces, engaging firmly with text. None of his ornaments in the da capo of He was despised were echoed by the violins, a casualty of the lack of time available to finesse such issues. De Vriend could also have been more accommodating of Tolputt at cadences which were often rushed unnecessarily.

Andrew Goodwin’s crystalline tenor delivered some of the performance’s most memorable moments, including Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron. (I felt sorry that at the beginning of the evening Art Centre staff were still admitting late patrons to the stalls during his opening bracket of Comfort Ye and Every Valley which nonetheless was touchingly delivered.) Loges’ bass is somewhat lighter in tone than is usual but proved appropriately agile in Why do the nations but could have had greater heft in The Trumpet Shall Sound.

Although each soloist contributed individual strengths to the whole, the work would have had greater impact if de Vriend had exercised more artistic control.

Handel makes considerable vocal demands on the chorus in Messiah, and the MSO Chorus negotiated these challenges skilfully by resisting the temptation to monumentalise every chorus. Even so, de Vriend did not really stamp any character on the chorus music until Surely He hath borne our griefs when suddenly he unleashed the latent power and commitment of the singers to excellent effect. The famous Hallelujah and the concluding Worthy is the Lamb/Amen were all delivered with gusto. (That the quaint custom of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus endures is a wry comment on Australia’s supposedly secular and republican leanings. Or is it that audiences just want to stretch their legs thirty minutes into the second half?)

Given that an annual outing to Messiah is often the only time that many people experience live choral and orchestral music, there is much value in maintaining this tradition. Given also the “fly in, fly out” nature of orchestral programming, perhaps some questions need to be asked as to whether some more time and effort needs to be lavished on the music’s preparation, especially now that there are a growing number of early music style groups who would claim Messiah as their own.

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