Review: Dunedin Consort’s Messiah

First published in the Guardian on 22 December, 2014

Messiah is all things to all performers: vast choral union epic to lithe period-band trot, Handel’s sturdy masterpiece accommodates them all. Of the latter, the annual account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort tends to be something special. Butt strikes a fine balance. His instincts are exploratory but he respects the sense of ritual that comes from familiarity. He takes the work’s religiousness seriously but avoids sanctimony – there’s no trace of sickly elation but there is a proper dose of mystery. The big tunes are kept relatively plain while moments of musical intrigue are given real drama. Tempos aren’t extreme; if anything, arias are on the spacious side allowing the soloists room to delve. And still the three hours usually fly by.

This year was no exception. The vocal sound was typically lean, with a choir of just 12 singers including the four excellent soloists. The priority wasn’t so much about ensemble blend or smoothness as vivid colour and counterpoint, and the character of each voice shone through in the mix. The odd moment of oily choral synthesis was all the more striking for being rare: the sudden, whispered sternness of the line “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,” for example, forcing us to sit up and self-reflect.

Thomas Walker was bold in the tenor arias. He sang a sensual Comfort Ye, an unflinching Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart, a menacing Thou Shalt Break Them. David Shipley was a clear and agile bass; soprano Mhairi Lawson added unshowy, effortless glamour and mezzo Rowan Hellier had gentle, subtle grace. The depth of the orchestral sound was a bit lost in the high crypt of St John’s but the shapely, zestful spirit of this playing would be hard to miss from a mile away.