You know Christmas is right around the corner when Messiahs start popping up all over town. Last weekend alone there was more than one to choose from. I attended the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ Saturday afternoon performance at the Opera House. I’ve sung Messiah many times and heard untold performances in two countries, but this one was head and shoulders above them all. Magnificent, inspiring, moving, powerful — no words do the performance justice.
As Italian opera began to lose its attraction with the London concert goers in the mid 18thC, Handel turned to oratorio writing — “a musical Drama whose Subject must be Scriptural, and in which the Solemnity of Church-Musick is agreeably united with the most pleasing Airs of the Stage”, as the comprehensive performance program notes advised me. Handel managed to whip this out in less than three weeks, and its popularity has never waned.
The Philharmonia Choir of 120, supplemented by the 335-strong Messiah Choir, produced a massive sound when singing at full volume. The four soloists were superb, each with impressive overseas experience as well in Australia. Miriam Allan (soprano) and tenor Andrew Goodwin, fresh from performing a week ago in the Pinchgut Opera, along with Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo) and Morgan Pearse (bass) were simply first class. In particular, I was moved by the pathos Russell brought to ‘He was Despised’, and the sensitively sung duets from the two women. Musical Director Brett Weymark conducted at a lively but well controlled pace. For those who know this music intimately, there were a number of surprises scattered throughout. One of the most moving was Weymark’s stunning arrangement of the ‘Amen’. Instead of the full choir launching into it, the soloists began very slowly and reflectively, singing the four parts, beginning with the bass, followed by the tenor, alto, and then the soprano. Then choir then took over building up to the glorious finale that brought a full Concert Hall to its feet clapping and cheering.
Messiah is probably as well known as any piece of classical music. I’m glad the fickle London opera goers got tired of Italian opera in 1741 or we may never have gained one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.