By George Frederick Handel
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Santa and his reindeer are in the shops, snow-laden fir trees are springing up everywhere, there’s a panto in town, and we’ve ‘done’ Messiah. Just how Handel’s great oratorio found its place in the wonderfully eclectic mix of pagan, Christian, Northern European and commercial iconography that marks the celebration of Christmas is somewhat surprising, but certainly for many it is now regarded as an essential part of the run-up to Christmas.
Written in haste in London in the summer of 1741, Messiah had its first performance in Dublin in April 1742. There is nothing specifically “Christmassy” about the work, which moves in three parts through the prophecy of Christ’s birth and the nativity story in Part One, His death, resurrection and ascension in Part Two, and the celebration of the victory over death in Part Three. Theologically, therefore, Messiah fits more appropriately into Easter celebrations, but popular culture has dictated otherwise.
From the first Messiah was a success with audiences, if not always with the clergy who distrusted the performance of sacred works in commercial venues. Such has been its popularity that it has survived many different treatments; adapted over time to suit a variety of venues, the musical and vocal skills of available performers, and current musical tastes. The original performance involved 26 boy choristers and five male soloists – a modest cast by our standards. However, the 1859 performance of Messiah to mark the centenary of Handel’s death, with a chorus of over 2000 and an orchestra of 460 playing to an audience of tens of thousands, must have been quite an experience!
Nowadays performances tend to lie somewhere on a continuum between small-cast, restrained recreations of an ‘authentic’ baroque sound and large scale productions that are loud, lush and lavish. At this year’s performance by the Queensland Orchestra and Queensland Choir, the choir, numbering more than a hundred voices, brought plenty of volume to the choral sections of the work and the orchestra, under the direction of Nicholas Milton, while hardly lush, was full-bodied and energetic.
The four soloists, Natalie Jones (soprano), Milijana Nikolic (mezzo), Mattias Lower (tenor) and Michael Lewis (baritone) were warmly welcomed by the audience; some like Michael Lewis as old friends, others like the striking Milijana Nikolic as new and welcome acquaintances. As always there was a palpable excitement in the hall before the opening bars of the Sinfony, which acts like an overture to an opera and is kept deceptively low-key. However, when tenor Mattias Lower’s clear, confident and lyrical voice soared in the thrilling opening exhortation to be comforted, the audience was quickly caught up in the unfolding drama of the narrative.
Standing beside the taller Milijana Nikolic, Natalie Jones looked deceptively fragile, but once she began to sing the strength and range of her voice was immediately apparent. No stranger to this style of singing, she demonstrated the vocal agility and control that made mastery of Handel’s demanding score seem effortless. Milijana Nikolic’s remarkable voice was compelling and added beautiful colour to the alto’s arias. However, there was some lack of audibility in the difficult sections in the lower register and problems with articulation at times. Michael Lewis sang well within his range and clearly relished the ‘duet’ with Richard Madden’s trumpet in the rousing ‘The trumpet shall sound’ – one of the many highlights of the work.
Conductor Nicholas Milton’s control of tempi and volume meant that the soloists were never battling the orchestra and his energetic management of the large chorus kept their enthusiasm in check and ensured that the harmonies were smoothly blended. The work of the orchestra and its soloists is often undervalued in an oratorio, but their contribution to the energy and drive of this work was evident. I thought the use of the organ loft for the two trumpeters for their featured section in the nativity account a nice theatrical touch, as was its recent use in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
Every Handel-lover has his or her own favourite reading of the score, and there are many treasured CD’s and records that will be given their annual airing over the next few weeks. However, for sheer excitement, nothing compares with being present in a concert hall with a few hundred other people experiencing the musical journey of this work. Although a sacred work by intention, for believers and non-believers alike, Handel’s genius makes the drama of the piece paramount. The movement from the quiet assurances of the opening passages through the injunction to rejoice greatly at Christ’s coming, the pathos of His rejection, followed by the triumphalism of the Hallelujah chorus and the rousing assertion that, at the end, ‘the trumpet will sound and we shall be changed’ draws the audience into a concurrence with the final, prolonged and satisfying Amen.
This year’s performance by the Queensland Orchestra and Choir met all expectations. Applause at the end was prolonged and well-justified. Doubtless last Saturday’s audience would have agreed with the reviewer of the first performance of Messiah, who wrote in The Dublin Journal in 1742: Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adopted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear .
Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Conducted by Nicholas Milton