The Herald – Handel’s Messiah at St Cuthbert’s – 4 Stars – 2009

This review — by Arts Editor, Keith Bruce — was originally published on The Herald’s Website on Monday, 5 January 2009.

When – renovation work schedule permitting – the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union is able to return to the Usher Hall for its annual New Year Messiah at the beginning of 2010, it may be that the faithful audience will miss some of the compromises that the move to two shows in the church next door have necessitated.

Most obviously, that will be the loss of the accompaniment by Usher Hall organist John Kitchen. Although the St Cuthbert’s instrument is sometimes mechanically noisy and there were the occasional problems of balance (noticably on mezzo Beth Mackay’s underpowered But Who May Abide?), there is no argument that the organ is a real bonus for the ecclesiastical triumphs of the Hallelujah chorus and the Amen finale, with a power a chamber orchestra cannot match.

It is also true that the acoustic suits the present strength of the choir, with the mere dozen tenors making their presence felt in a way they might struggle to do in the big hall, and the rich ensemble tone of the altos filling the space in the quieter moments.

Director Michael Bawtree has “the choral” in fine dynamic order and this Messiah featured an idiosyncratic quartet of soloists. Mackay, more of a salon singer than a big oratorio voice, was more at home on He Was Despised and both Ugandan bass Terence Ayebare and soprano Kirstin Sharpin, from New Zealand and a favourite with Deneve at the RSNO, revelled in the brisk tempi.

It was, however, tenor Simon Wall, the only voice not to have RSAMD training, who set the bar with his ornamentation on the opening aria, Ev’ry Valley.

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