Handel’s Messiah on Good Friday 2017 at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney

*Note: Due to an unexpected sequence of events, this review was delayed by some weeks. My apologies to those awaiting its publication.

The queue to get into St Andrew’s on this balmy Good Friday evening was so long that it coiled around and around on itself, making finding its end an extremely difficult task. Those crushed in it were mostly over 55, as is generally the case for classical music concerts in Sydney, but all ages were grumbling about the queue, while slight smiles of anticipation lurked around the corners of everyone’s mouths. A Messiah was in the offing, almost exactly 275 years after the work’s London premiere, with four international soloists: Sarah Toth (soprano, USA/Germany), Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo, Australia), Richard Butler (tenor, UK) and Paul Goodwin-Groen (bass, USA). ****

This Good Friday Messiah was not to take place in the nearby Town Hall. (For those interested in this beloved Sydney Christmas tradition, Catherine Jinks’ novel An Evening With the Messiah humorously explores it). Rather, this Messiah was to be presented in the vaulted sandstone Gothic Revival gorgeousness that is Australia’s oldest and most famous Anglican cathedral. Once we finally made it inside, St Andrew’s beauty and lovely acoustic more than made up for the wait, and I became excited as I took my seat at the very front left, as Sarah Toth’s guest.

My position allowed me to peer closely at concertmaster Stephen Freedman and his sheet music (the Oxford edition by Clifford Bartlett) and his ‘period’ instrument. The chamber orchestra was almost entirely made up of period reproduction instruments: six violins, two violas, three cellos, a double bass, two oboes, two trumpets, percussion, the cathedral’s organ and an adorably tiny electric harpsichord. What were the performers’ names? Disappointingly, none were forthcoming from the rather oddly put-together program beyond those of Freedman, the harpsichordist (lawyer-cum-keyboardist Edwin Taylor) and the organist (Kiwi-born Sean Henderson).

Within the chamber orchestra, even those that looked non-‘period’ were strung with gut. In this context, ‘period’ generally means an instrument based on designs from before around 1800, and such instruments are strongly associated with the Historically Informed Performance movement (or HIP). HIP is now into its third generation and is very well established, and a good deal of its focus has been built around English oratorio and liturgical music. Messiah is arguably an exception to the rule that most oratorios are now ‘done HIP’ – this most famous of all oratorios is still often performed with operatic voices, massed choirs and full orchestras, as in the Town Hall. But this was a Good Friday performance and I felt that the subdued nature of the occasion suited the smaller forces and lighter timbres of this “Ancient Academy of St Andrew’s” period ensemble. (Incidentally, one wonders how “ancient” a Sydney chamber orchestra could possibly be, but I like the reference to Baroque-era academy orchestras.)

The first few numbers emphasised the lower-voiced soloists, with Sally-Anne Russell’s creamy, rich mezzo delighting us with some lovely ornamental work in “But Who May Abide”, and the charismatic and enormously tall Goodwin taking on some of his optional low bass notes with ease. UK-trained tenor Richard Butler, standing in at late notice for Christopher Watson, created a typically English cathedral sound with his light lyric tenor, giving us graceful phrasing and effective ornamentations. I particularly enjoyed his beautiful crescendo in “Comfort Ye”. Sarah Toth’s lovely lyric soprano has matured and bloomed since I last heard her sing nearly two years ago – she has a brighter, bigger sound with even more warmth, facility and confidence, and her natural musical instinct and finely honed musicianship never led her astray. I was a little disappointed, given Toth’s artistry, to see that fewer airs were assigned to the soprano in this HIP version of the score, compared with other versions that see songs such as “But Who May Abide” sung in the transposition for soprano (made particularly famous by Emma Kirkby). Sally-Anne Russell did not disappoint there, however. Russell’s musicality also shone through especially when she provided a very contrasting timbre and emotional expression in the B section of ‘He Was Despised”, and with the da capo she gave us an even more poignant expression of grief with a faraway timbre and decrescendo to pianissimo.

After the Chorus “He trusted in God”, there was a pleasant interval with coffee and hot cross buns in the Upper Chapter House. During this time a dastardly crime took place: someone stole the conductor’s score. Whodunit? The audience’s return to the Cathedral was met with a long, awkward silence as poor conductor Ross Cobb desperately tried to search for it, and we watched as he finally had to settle for a replacement score. We were kept informed of the situation publicly by Canon Christopher Allan. It would have been amusingly farcical, if it had not been so problematic and frankly, disgusting. What kind of audience member steals a conductor’s score from his stand, and in a sacred space, no less?!

The much-anticipated Hallelujah Chorus was a suitably uplifting end to Part II, and in Part III, the two HIP trumpeters and their natural trumpets came into their own. It was lovely to see these relatively rare instruments. Initially I thought that the leader was unconsciously miming the finger movements of a valved instrument, but he told me afterwards that his natural trumpet has small finger holes for precision of intonation.

Overall, it was a very aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating performance. The Ancient Academy was conducted by Ross Cobb at relaxed tempi (sometimes apparently too relaxed for Paul Goodwin’s taste !). The trebles in the choir were in fine voice, though a little unsure in the florid passages of “For Unto Us”, and watching some of the boys’ facial expressions while they sang was almost as interesting as listening to the music. But in general the entire all-male choir was in excellent form, and there seems to be a particularly good alto in there somewhere. The four wonderful soloists, Ross Cobb, his choir and the Ancient Academy are to be commended on an excellent and suitably reverent performance of this most famous and revered of oratorios. It was certainly worth the wait!

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