“I needed not sell one single ticket at the door,” said Handel of the world premiere of his oratorio Messiah in Dublin in 1742. The now iconic choral work was extraordinarily popular in Handel’s day and is even more so today – it’s beloved of singers and audiences alike, from Christmas-and-Easter concert goers to seasoned Messiah chasers. Indeed, the couple sitting next to me for Friday night’s sold out performance by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs had already heard Messiahs in Brisbane and Melbourne this month.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Photo © Keith Saunders
This performance, led by Artistic Director Brett Weymark, saw the singers of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs joined by the Christmas Choir, as well as singers from the newly minted River City Voices – who will present their own Messiah in Parramatta on Tuesday under the baton of Artistic Director Sarah Penicka-Smith – in a 600-strong chorus. Weymark deftly wrangled these enormous forces to produce a performance of incredible subtly, nuance and clarity.
From the stately orchestral Sinfony, this was a polished, well-judged account from Weymark, aided by his fine quartet of soloists: soprano Celeste Lazarenko, countertenor Nicholas Tolputt, tenor Andrew Goodwin and bass-baritone Christopher Richardson.
Lazarenko brought a light, sparkling soprano – with some beautiful shading – to Rejoice greatly while her If God be for us was radiant. Tolputt’s instrument may not be the largest, but he wields it with clarity and sensitivity, and the gentle pathos he brought to the alto solo He was despised was deeply affecting. Goodwin – who joined Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for 2017’s Messiah – brought his characteristically assured, burnished tenor to Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, agile ornamentation to Ev’ry Valley and a darker sense of drama to the words “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” in the oratorio’s central section, while Richardson rumbled ominously on “I will shake the heav’ns and the earth” and gave a gleaming account of The trumpet shall sound, joined by trumpeter Daniel Henderson from the Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra.
The orchestra was in great form throughout, with the oboe and lute music to introduce the shepherds a particular highlight, as were oboist Ngaire de Korte’s duets with Lazarenko in Thou art gone up on high and If God be for us and concertmaster Fiona Ziegler’s finely spun solos.
But the chorus is the star in this music, and Weymark drew exceptional clarity of text and some superb colouring from his singers, from the wonderfully hushed openings of And he shall purify and Since by man came death to the popping accents on “wonderful counsellor” and lithe virtuosity of His yoke is easy. The balance was impressive throughout, while the interweaving lines of the fugues, often a stumbling block, were crisply rendered. The big numbers – such as the famous Hallelujah Chorus – were powerful without ever sacrificing the tone.
While there’s no denying the appeal of Handel’s music, the sense of tradition that comes with a performance of Messiah (or a favourite recording, aired every year at Christmas) is certainly part of its ongoing attraction. The tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus stems from a – possibly apocryphal – story that King George II stood at that moment at the London premiere, obliging the audience to do the same. Regardless of the veracity the anecdote, it’s a tradition that’s been embraced whole-hearted by Messiah fans. The entire Concert Hall audience stood up for the Hallelujah Chorus on Friday night, guaranteeing a built in standing ovation for the end of the second part – a standing ovation which the audience duly reprised, and deservedly so, at the work’s conclusion.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs Handel’s Messiah at the Sydney Opera House until December 15