Review / Coro’s tour de force ‘Messiah’

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IF Coro’s performance of the 1742 version of Handel’s “Messiah”, as performed at its premiere in Dublin, is anything to go by, it is no wonder the press was “ecstatic” about the piece.

Indeed, the review, just of the packed rehearsal, holds true even today, nearly 300 years later, that it was “allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard”. Of the official premiere performance, on April 13, the Dublin Journal of April 17, 1742, was tongue-tied, saying “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience.”

It is not surprising that Handel’s “Messiah” has retained the reverence it so richly deserves over three centuries.

Such accolades must surely have been due, in part at least, as it was at St Paul’s, to the rather smaller ensemble – about 2-dozen voices and an orchestra of just 15 – and perhaps even the somewhat drier acoustic that allowed the audience to hear nuances of the music that bigger-force performances and livelier acoustics inevitably hide.

Make no mistake though; this group delivered every musical expression required of it, from the softest whisper to the loudest roar.

The orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor, Joseph Nolan, himself a much-celebrated musician, was quite simply superb. Even though the instruments were tuned to modern pitch, the non-use of vibrato gave genuine authenticity to the fabulously clean, clear sound they created.

A string of soloists gave their all. One or two perhaps were vocally a little light for the music, but all dealt confidently and expertly with Handel’s complex writing. In particular, Andrew Fysh’s ‘Why do the nations’ and Peter Tregear’s ‘The trumpet shall sound’ were stunningly ear-bending. Soprano, Emma Griffiths’ ‘I know that my Redeemer’ was sweet and heart-felt, while Paul McMahon’s tenor voice soared beautifully above the orchestra in all his solos.

Coro delivered just as would be expected in every chorus – all of them favourites.

There were a couple of tiny entry and pitch lapses, but tone and balance were magnificent, as was their handling of the complex interweaving of melodies through the four divisions, so typical of Handel’s writing.

Even when Nolan took choruses like ‘For unto us a child is born’, ‘Rejoice greatly’ and ‘Glory and honour’ at astonishingly cracking tempi, Coro was able to stay with him, maintaining the melody, even through those long, diabolically difficult already fast-paced semi-quaver melismas, while also delivering flawless diction.

Without doubt this was one of the most enjoyable performances of “Messiah” I have attended. I heard so much more of it than I had before. It was thoroughly deserving of the sustained, standing ovation.

[Photos by Peter Hislop]

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