Thursday, December 9, 2021

Messiah: Soloists cap splendid showing

Messiah 2021. Photo by Ian Thomson.

Handel's Messiah

Tuesday 7 December 2021, Dunedin Town Hall

Handel could never have imagined Messiah, his oratorio written in 1741, would live on through generations, becoming such a popular work throughout the world, especially on the Christian calendar, where it is customary to perform it before Christmas. 

City Choir Dunedin, accompanied by Dunedin Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Burchell , delivered this massive dramatic musical work to a very appreciative audience on Tuesday evening in the Dunedin Town Hall. 

The soloists were Lois Johnston (soprano), Claire Barton (alto), Oliver Sewell (tenor), and Paul Whelan (bass). 

I have attended and reviewed many performances of Messiah and along with others to whom I spoke, felt this performance was one of the best. Maybe after a lean year for live musical events it was the exhilaration of just being in the town hall as the drama and passion of text unfolded. But the musicians were definitely all in top form, and Sewell’s opening Comfort Ye and aria certainly set a very high benchmark for others to follow, as glorious tenor timbre and robust cadential ornamentation filled the auditorium. 

The choir of 90 were in great form, with full marks for strength, blend and top soprano intonation. A highlight was the ardour and detail accorded the big chorus numbers, such as And the Glory, Lift Up Your Head, and of course the famous Hallelujah with its soaring triumphant climaxes. Burchell drew excellent dynamic contrast for sections of Since by Man Came Death

The baroque orchestra responded to paces set, fusing tight string blends with stylistic embellishment and exciting crescendi. Trumpet highlights were strong and true. 

Soloists advanced the plot with precision and sincerity. Whelan’s big resonating bass achieved clarity of text, especially in The Trumpet Shall Sound with an impressive decorated final cadence. Barton filled He Was Despised with appropriate sentiment, and Johnston (who at 24 hours’ notice replaced an indisposed soprano) was never tentative, although I felt she was a little lightweight, but her famous aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth was superb. 

The final Amens were followed by long applause and standing ovation. A magnificent performance.

Review by Elizabeth Bouman, Otago Daily Times, 9 December 2021

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