The Herald – Handel’s Messiah at St Cuthbert’s – 5 Stars – 2008

This review — by Arts Editor, Keith Bruce — was originally published on The Herald’s Website on Friday, 4 January 2008.

It may have been a case of “needs must” because of the closure of the Usher Hall, but, as organist John Kitchen explained in an informative programme note, there is a long tradition of Handel’s great oratorio being performed with organ rather than orchestral accompaniment. For Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, the economy of the option may also have helped offset the loss of the larger venue, despite this being the second extra evening performance of the traditional New Year concert.

It may have been a case of “needs must” because of the closure of the Usher Hall, but, as organist John Kitchen explained in an informative programme note, there is a long tradition of Handel’s great oratorio being performed with organ rather than orchestral accompaniment. For Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, the economy of the option may also have helped offset the loss of the larger venue, despite this being the second extra evening performance of the traditional New Year concert.

For the singers and chorus master Michael Bawtree, the challenge was one of scale and precision and the clarity of the choruses was a constant, even as the conductor appeared to be continuously keeping the volume in check. Here was a need for great discipline from the sopranos, hitting the high notes in a more restrained fashion, even as the men – fewer in number – benefited from the situation, the tenors much more consistently audible than usual.

The quartet of young soloists gave equally well-judged performances. Tenor Ed Lyon’s voice is theatrical, rather than operatic, in an old-fashioned style that suited his leading role in the unfolding narrative and bass Douglas Nairne is a promising talent whose comparative inexperience showed in his reliance on Bawtree for rhythmic guidance. Carolyn Dobbin may have been billed as a mezzo but has real richness in the true alto notes of her range, and the profound simplicity of her He Was Despised with just the spare organ line was a highlight. Soprano Henriikka Grondahl made up in vivacious personality and projection what she sometimes lacked in clear enunciation, but her I Know That my Redeemer Liveth was verbally pellucid enough to forgive its one melodic fluff.

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