The Scotsman – Handel’s Messiah at The Usher Hall – 4 Stars – 2010

This review was originally published on The Scotsman’s Website on Sunday, 3 January 2010.

LIKE the Turner watercolours, Handel’s Messiah is a deeply woven part of the fabric of Edinburgh’s New Year celebrations. For a staggering 123 years, Edinburgh Royal Choral Union (ERCU) has been striding into January with its performance of the popular 18th century work – and shows no sign of stopping.

Not least because the concert is clearly an early highlight in many people’s calendars. You only need listen to the variety of postcodes being proffered at ticket collection to know that ERCU’s audience comes from far and wide. And, since the annual event switched from 1 January to 2 January in 1984, they all stay awake, too.

The concert’s appeal is many and varied, and not exclusively concerned with music. It’s amazing how an extra ten minutes at interval time can turn a performance into a social occasion. When the singers and musicians depart after the first section, the beautiful sound they create is replaced by the cracking open of Tupperware and popping of champagne corks.

But the main draw, of course, is the quality of the music and once again ECRU enlisted some great professionals to swell their ranks. Edinburgh Pro Musica Orchestra played with an assured subtlety that was never in danger of drowning out the singing. Soloists Joanne Boag, Carolyn Dobbin and James Birchall handled Charles Jennens’ libretto with tenderness while tenor Simon Watt sang with such purity, you wished Handel had thrown a little more music his way.

Yet it was the moment when the chorus sang utterly alone that brought forth goose bumps. A few unaccompanied bars that signified just how hard these singers work throughout the year to keep standards high. That an amateur group can virtually sell out a venue the size of the Usher Hall is testament not only to their ability to organise and stage a great concert, but serves as a reminder that Scotland’s voluntary arts sector deserves more recognition than it currently receives.

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