Dunedin Consort: Messiah review – drive and drama, clarity and beauty

Kings Place, London
Soloists James Laing and Nicholas Mulroy shone particularly among an exemplary ensemble in a small-scale interpretation of Handel’s oratorio led by John Butt

As with any work that is enormously popular, we can, if we’re not careful, take Handel’s Messiah for granted. Nowadays it is of course primarily associated with Advent, though Handel intended it to be performed at Easter. Charles Jennens’s libretto – he modestly called it a “Scripture collection” – carefully surveys the entirety of Christian revelation by refashioning New Testament narrative in terms of the Old Testament prophecy, before turning towards the book of Revelation and the final establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth. Its optimism is infectious. “The glory of the Lord” is a phrase that runs through it like a refrain: the words “comfort” and “peace” are emphasised throughout.

The work’s affirmative nature was forcefully brought home in this superb performance by the Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort under its musical director John Butt. His has long been considered a benchmark small-scale interpretation, noted for its musical and textual clarity, its drive and drama, and the way it captures the score’s elation and joy without losing sight of its deeper resonances.

‘Blazing with conviction’ ... conductor John Butt (centre) and tenor Nicholas Mulroy
‘Blazing with conviction’ ... conductor John Butt (centre) and tenor Nicholas Mulroy. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

With 15 players and 12 singers – the soloists also form part of the chorus – Butt pressed through while giving the music space to live and breathe. Speeds could be on the swift side, though nothing felt hectored. String textures varied from airy elegance, when the angels appear to the shepherds, to austere severity in the contemplation of the Passion that opens Part II. Rhythms were incisive and precise, and there was an appealing lilt throughout to the pastoral undertow that underscores the crucial image of Christ as shepherd. The Hallelujah Chorus blended majesty with excitement, though Butt rightly allowed the final chorus, Worthy Is the Lamb to Be Slain, to form the climactic statement of the entire work.

It was beautifully sung. Choral lines were buoyant, finely balanced and crystal-clear, with all the fugal passages exactingly precise and the criss-crossing coloratura immaculately in place. The solo quartet, meanwhile, was exceptionally strong. Soprano Mhairi Lawson and bass Matthew Brook brought operatic weight to the proceedings. Lawson’s Rejoice Greatly, taken at a tremendous lick, was very virtuoso; I Know That My Redeemer Liveth was grandly assertive. Brook sounded fierily brilliant in Why Do the Nations and The Trumpet Shall Sound.

The outstanding solo contributions, however, came from countertenor and tenor, James Laing and Nicholas Mulroy. Laing combines the ability to convey refined emotional subtlety with a tone of almost unearthly purity: He Was Despised, grieving yet almost choked with anger, was very much a high point. Mulroy, his voice blazing with conviction, was extraordinarily moving both as harbinger of peace in Comfort Ye and in the ferocious way he delivered Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart. Diction, so often slipshod nowadays, was exemplary throughout: you could hear every word and hear it given due weight and meaning, not only in the solos but in the most complex choral polyphony.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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