Tag Archives: concert

Review: The Messiah (2014)

As has become tradition for me and my friends, 2014’s theatre-going opens with the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union’s Messiah. For 127 years, ERCU have been performing this work at the Usher Hall on the 2nd of January, and I’ve been every year for the last five years.

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Where and When: Usher Hall; Thursday 2nd January 2014, 12:00

The Show

There is little that I can add to the myriad of essays, books and reviews which have been written about Handel’s Messiah over the years. The Messiah is the archetypal oratorio and possibly one of the best known choral works of all time. It is performed constantly around the world in various forms and is part of the central canon of vocal and choral repertoire. ERUC usually perform the work more or less in its entirety as published in the Watkins-Shaw edition.

This year, there were some cuts, notably, The Trumpet Shall Sound was not sung in full, which was a disappointment. In Part II, items 34 (Unto Which of the Angels said He at any Time) to item 37 (The Lord Gave the Word) were not performed, and in Part III, item 49 (Then shall be brought to pass) to item 51 (But Thanks be to God) were also omitted.

The Cast

The Choral Union themselves were, as always, outstanding. I happen to know a few of the members, and I know that they have very few rehearsals for this concert. Instead, there is an acquired level of knowledge from the annual performance, and a lot of hard work by individuals.

This year’s guest conductor, James Lowe, is usually an orchestral conductor, which led to some interesting experiences for the choir. He did decide to take an interesting interpretation with the choral elements. Many of the arias were taken (to quote a choir member) “at quite a lick”, and no where was this more obvious than in the Hallelujah Chorus, which did not have the usual dramatic changes of tempo. I’m not sure I liked it, but there are few rules with a work such as the Messiah about how one should interpret performance directions!

Overall, the soloists were a weaker group than in previous years. The bass, Andrew McTaggart, was the least notable, showing neither outstanding talent for baroque oratorio, nor a distinct lack thereof. The same could not be said of the mezzo-soprano, Louise Collett, nor the the tenor, Jamie MacDougall. Neither seemed vocally suited to this work. The mezzo-soprano performed with so much vibrato I was unable to tell at points if she intended to sing a trill, or was just wobbling a lot! Despite her rich tone, Ms Collett also failed to properly sing over the orchestra in the lower passages. The tenor was, I suspect, closer to a baritone, and thus lacked the rich, honey sweetness needed to really excel in this work. On reading his biography, I was given to understand than he sings a lot of German lieder, and I feel this would suit his talents rather better.

On a brighter note, however, the soprano, Emma Morwood, was outstanding. Her vocal vibrato was beautifully controlled allowing her to sing the intricate runs, trills and turns of Handel’s score with precision and expression. For the first time, I truly enjoyed all the soprano arias, rather than slowly zoning out as the twittering obscures the technical genius of the composer. I can only hope that she enjoyed her experience sufficiently to want to return and perform in future years.

Overall

Once again, a lovely New Year day out with friends, enhanced by the picnic lunches and traditions of this event. This is, perhaps, the weakest of the performances I have seen so far given the conductor, soloists and cuts, but that does not detract from the wonderful chorus, excellent musicians and remarkable music.

Notable Songs

All the arias in the Messiah appear in graded and diploma lists, and should form part of any classical singer’s repertoire. Rather than listing them all, I recommend purchasing a vocal score and exploring these great works yourself.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Review: RSNO – Oundjian Conducts The Planets

The first review of the season from the Usher Hall, taking our seats in the gods for Britten’s Simple Symphony, MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Holst’s The Planets.

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Where and When: Usher Hall, Edinburgh; Friday 4th October, 7:30pm

The Music:

As always with classical concerts, the first half of this performance was supporting choices before the second half’s main event. Opening the evening was Britten’s Simple Symphony, a fitting choice for a season which covers the centenary of the composer’s birth. The Simple Symphony is scored entirely for strings, and the second movement is entirely pizzicato. The first, third and fourth movements were lovely, but it is this second movement that was the standout aspect of this work, demonstrating what can be achieved simply by combining many very quiet sounds together. It is a lovely example of mid-twentieth century creativity as the rules of music were discarded and should most definitely be heard live for best effect.

The second supporting choice was the UK Premiere of MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No 3. I have to admit the words “UK Premiere” filled me with trepidation, and I was right to be cautious. This piano concerto certainly showed instrumental creativity, with the piano’s full range  used to great effect. There was also a fabulous range of percussion included. However, the problem is one common to many contemporary works – there was too much going on and nothing was fully developed. None of the themes were allowed to become anything, and instead the music jumped from one idea to another with little sense of congruity. Perhaps this was the point – a statement on the fast pace and underdeveloped nature of modern living. I don’t know, because after a while the effect became all too much and it was hard not to drift off in my own world and stop listening. There’s something to be said for sonata form – following the process of theme, development and recapitulation do make music much easier to listen to and engage with.

The second half was filled entirely with The Planets and what a treat it was. There’s nothing like hearing the swell of the orchestra as they reach the pinnacle of Mars to send a tingle down your spine! Often the movements are heard out of context. I enjoyed hearing the complete work in the order Holst prescribed as there is a surprising sense of continuity as well as contrast from one movement to the next. Neptune was the most surprising as the ladies of the RSNO chorus sang the ethereal closing melody of the work from behind the grand circle, walking away as they sang alone. The effect left the audience mentally floating out into deep space, and marvelling at the wonders of the universe.

The Orchestra:

A marvellous performance by the orchestra and chorus, and a special note for the four gentlemen of the percussion section who were kept fit moving from one instrument to the next. Jean-Yves Thibaudet played beautifully for MacMillan’s piano concerto, and kudos to his page turner – a job I do not envy! All of them were kept in line by the marvellous Peter Oundjian who gave a lovely introduction to the evening’s works between the Britten and MacMillan.

Overall:

A great start to what looks like a fantastic season. The programme was well-balanced and appealing to all ages. It was especially lovely to see a large number of children and families in the audience. I didn’t love the MacMillan, but I can appreciate the technical skill of the work. The Britten and Host works were wonderful.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥