Handel’s Messiah – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

David Barmby

A traditional if bland performance of a seasonal favourite.
Handel’s Messiah – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne’s 2017 Concert Season both opened and closed with two very different interpretations of Handel’s English oratorio Messiah. There was an unusual semi-staged performance by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir directed by Paul Dyer in February and a traditional if bland presentation on Saturday night by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus directed by Italian Baroque specialist, Rinaldo Alessandrini, an expert in early Italian opera and choral music, particularly Monteverdi. He is founder and conductor of the renowned Italian ensemble, Concerto Italiano whose performances last year of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 were highlights of the year. In the current season of Christmas fare, this Messiah came hot on the heels of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of London giving an excellent reading of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio last week in the same hall.


Messiah, this famous and regularly performed choral work, setting biblical and Prayer Book passages along with text by Charles Jennens, hardly needs introduction. It was written in just three weeks in August, 1741 remodelling several previously composed works and was first performed in the New Musick Hall, Dublin the following year. With the establishment of annual Foundling Hospital concerts to benefit the society for Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, it was only then performed in London. One interesting feature of the work is that there are many versions, the composer rarely cutting but mostly adding material to suit each performance. Handel, well known as a composer of opera in London, was intrigued with the limits of dramatic expression he could bring to British oratorio; convincing semi and fully staged versions are now regularly performed. The first performance involved around 50 musicians and singers; by the end of Handel’s life, hundreds performed.

In three Parts, the work encompasses prophesies of Christ’s birth in Part 1, his Passion and Resurrection in Part 2 and finally the Last Judgement and Second Coming in Part 3 making it suitable to be performed at Easter of Christmas. On this occasion we experienced a sizeable orchestra, four soloists and 63 in the choir performing a solid work lasting two hours and 20 minutes.

As has happily become the custom with the MSO’s performances of Baroque music and this work in particular each year, Baroque specialists are invited to lead and introduce various opinions and styles of historically informed performance practice to both choir and orchestra. In the past there have been several obvious successes, most notably with Stephen Layton directing the same work in December, 2009. So it was a surprise to witness Alessandrini’s remarkably straightforward interpretation on Saturday night, though many in the capacity audience may have been relieved to hear a traditional interpretation of the work that they might remember from decades past or at school, fatigued by more recent experiences of stylistic and rhetorical adjustment. Though Alessandrini’s direction was clear and to the point, the interpretation was uniformly unimaginative. The governing performance style was an old-fashioned agitation and over-articulation from the double basses up, with each and every note separated. Pitch was modern (A 440 Hz) and temperament equal. The continuo section comprising harpsichord, organ, bassoon and cello was well upstage and away from the soloists.

We were, however, with a distinguished quartet of soloists in Australian soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo-soprano Joslyn Rechter, the excellent English tenor, Ed Lyon (former choral scholar at St John’s College Cambridge) and bass Salvo Vitale, a regular member of Concerto Italiano. Sara Macliver must have sung this work dozens of times. It is a strong vehicle for solo soprano with its famous airs Rejoice greatly, But who may abide (often sung by alto), How beautiful are the feet, and I know that my Redeemer liveth. Sara Macliver sang on this occasion with reassurance and polished elegance, her da capo ornamentation well judged. It was the first time I had heard young mezzo-soprano Joslyn Rechter who provided a fine stage presence and whose voice is also elegant and attractive with rich resonance, though it seemed in the main underpowered in the first half. Her rendering of He was despised, with its dramatic central section, was affecting. Ed Lyon’s voice projected well into the hall with an unrelenting, highly dramatic delivery, though his constant covering vibrato robbed his interpretation of rhetoric subtlety. As a result the opening Comfort ye was noticeably harsh while later his more gentle approach to Behold and see well captured the air’s true pathos. Catalan Salvo Vitale’s bass is a remarkable and memorable voice with great resonance and range, though his pronunciation of English was of constant concern. His thrilling The trumpet shall sound compensated.

The MSO Chorus gave a well-drilled performance, evidence of the hard preparatory work of Warren Trevelyan-Jones, the choir’s chorus master. Sopranos and basses were the strongest contributors which the inner parts could not match. Crisp English articulation was in abundance throughout the choir’s ranks but often at the expense of vocal line and phrasing. There was good singing in the famous choruses And the glory of the Lord, And He shall purify and the Hallelujah chorus (where the soloists and audience stood as one following the quaint if questionable tradition). For unto us a child is born chugged along. There was some concerningly rough and forced singing though, such as within the weighty celebration and outpouring of evangelism in The Lord gave the word and Their sound is gone out, along with the slow, monstrously laborious and heavy contrapuntal interpretation of Blessing and honour in Worthy is the Lamb. But it was impossible to ignore the hope, joy and delight in the eyes of many of the choristers throughout.

3 stars out of 5

Handel’s Messiah 
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor
Sara Macliver, soprano
Joslyn Rechter, mezzo-soprano
Ed Lyon, tenor
Salvo Vitale, bass
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus 
Presented by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
Saturday, 9 December, 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.