Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Kicking off the new year in time-honoured tradition, the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, accompanied by the Edinburgh Pro Musica Orchestra and John Kitchen on the organ, gave an uplifting performance of Handel’s Messiah in what was their 131st annual New Year’s concert. Guest conductor Benjamin Bayl led the chorus and orchestra with clean, clear movements, beautifully capturing the music’s sway. The orchestra, under the leadership of Rowan Bell, was on spectacular form, easily up there with the country’s finest early music ensembles. Bell’s solo playing towards the end of part three was exquisitely ornamented with a raw, organic tone, and the offstage brass in the first part was crisp and sparkling. Underpinning much of the music with a strong yet subtle depth was John Kitchen’s mastery of the Usher Hall’s mighty organ, adding just the right amount of power.
Performing this marvelous work every year, the choir must know every inch of the music inside out, and that is certainly what came across, with perfect balance between parts, crystal-clear diction and long melismatic passages tightly controlled. The quartet of soloists were equally rigorous in their portrayal of the piece. Showing a real talent for Oratorio, mezzo-soprano Judy Brown gave a heartfelt and compelling rendition of He was despised, the opening aria in part 2. Soprano soloist Susanna Hurrell brought a beautiful array of colour to I know that my redeemer liveth although her vibrato was a touch on the heavy side. Bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton sang with a rounded warmth, though was sometimes overshadowed by the orchestra, and tenor Elgin Llŷr Thomas gave clear and animated delivery.
This year’s performance contained many more musical bonuses as well, however, beginning with one of the finest editions of the scratch “Edinburgh Pro Musica Orchestra”: the oboes were Cath Earnshaw and Rosie Staniforth, by way of illustration. The musicians, conducted by chorusmaster Michael Bawtree and with John Kitchen at the organ, shone much new light on the work ¬– in Handel’s varied approaches to continuo, for example.
The choir were joined by a fine line-up of soloists too, with tenor Nathan Vale fascinating from the start, a distinctive touch of vibrato in his baroque approach, and American bass-baritone Tyler Simpson particularly impressive in Part 2’s Why do the nations? If mezzo Emilie Renard seemed slightly under-powered on He Was Despised, her voice never lacked colour and expression. But if the bar had already been set high by the time Mhairi Lawson stood to introduce the Nativity story, her seemingly effortless engagement with the narrative, the music and the chorus raised it further. Her later delivery of “the first fruits of them that sleep” in Part 3’s I know that my redeemer liveth brought fresh meaning to the line.
Although a little ragged on either side of the interval on the tricky His yoke is easy and the opening of Behold the lamb, the chorus, augmented by two dozen guests from the Orkney Winter Choir directed by Glenys Hughes, were also on fine, poised, and measured form, all the way to the sopranos’ peal of bells on the closing Amen.
Now a firm fixture of Edinburgh’s contemporary Hogmanay programme as well as the capital’s long-established New Year celebrations, the 129th performance of Handel’s oratorio by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union may be chiefly remembered for the debut of German baritone and BBC New Generation Artist Benjamin Appl, a real talent of power, confidence and exemplary diction who delivered his first aria, The people that walked in darkness, in Schubertian style and continued to treat the score’s most operative moments as Lieder. With instrumentalist Andrew Connell-Smith as his foil, the trumpet has rarely sounded with such fluidity.
He was in fine company however, particularly in his platform neighbour, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, whose first extended “Comfort ye” opened the vocal score as beautifully as I’ve heard, and whose command of recitative and engagement with the chorus was, by contrast with Appl, engagingly theatrical. He and mezzo Annie Gill, a couple off-stage as well as on, decorated their lines with careful ornamentation, Gill particularly effectively on He was despised. Appl and soprano Susanna Andersson (wife of conductor Tecwyn Evans) stuck more strictly to the score, and the combination of all four was full of colour, particularly the vocal duet of the two women on He shall feed his flock, the sonic sister of a beautifully-played Pastoral Symphony that rather belied the raft of changes to the line-up of the players in orchestra from that published in the programme.
Amid such riches, “The Choral” still managed to shine in its own right, Evans encouraging the texture of the chorus over its power, and the singers responding with beautiful measured poised at the conclusion of the sequence of choruses in Part Two and again for Since by man in Part Three. Chorus-master Michael Bawtree was bolstering the tenor section, so wins credit for performance as well as the drilling.