If ever a work of music trailed the heavenly clouds of glory, it would be Handel’s Messiah. Contemporary secularism can’t kill its spirit, nor its ability to lift us into a lofty realm, and in that sense, we are not too far removed from its first eager audience in 1742, when the Dublin Protestant Ascendancy class thronged into Fishamble Street, and, reported the Dublin Journal, considered it the “finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard”.

Laurence Cummings © Anton Säckl
Laurence Cummings
© Anton Säckl

In a good performance of such a celebrated work, something new and distinctive may well emerge, as well as all the comfortably familiar glories of the score. Tonight, for example, in the University of Maryland Concert Choir/NSO’s performance, what stood out to me, as newly distinctive, was the chorus of scoffers “He trusted in God”. In the interlacing of voices, the timing of breaths, the rasp of precise articulation, and the hissing of sibilants, it was as if we were made to hear the mocking and catcalls of the Pharisees in Holy Week. That was powerful and real. So also with the word painting evoking the stripes of the Christ’s passion: voices were jagged, the rhythm whip-crack sharp. These, among others, were very decisive and appropriate moments in the interpretation: well-observed incidents of musical narration. The very word ‘oratorio’ means pulpit, and thus it is meant to preach in its way.

There was lovely, rhythmic partnership between soloist, counter-tenor, Christopher Ainslie, orchestra, and chorus in “O Thou that Tellest good tidings”. Joélle Harvey had a sweet vibrated soprano voice; she was complemented by feathery light voices sopranos in the chorus. Smooth-sounding though they were, one could have done with a bit more weight from James Kryshak the tenor and Douglas Williams, the bass-baritone. It was a Messiah without a huge emphasis on the lower range, and thus lacked a certain richness and layering.

The orchestra though, conducted with wonderful verve and fluidity by Laurence Cummings, seemed rather slow to warm up. The overture was heavy rather than meditative, and although the broad tonal contrasts were there, some of the finesse, the micro-changes of pitch and mood were elided. It was as if they’d played it once too often to be anything other than a little jaded. But they did come into their own for some parts.

There were two moments when I could have done with more feeling. When it came to that profoundly moving air “He was despised”, Ainslie came across as matter-of-fact, pathos notably absent. Harvey lent her air “I know that my Redeemer liveth” a touching quality, but we weren’t, in either case, quite reaching transcendent sorrow or transcendent faith.

The “Hallelujah” chorus itself was somewhat blasé. Although we have all heard this most celebrated four minutes of music hundreds of times, the art consists in really trying to convince you that this is the first time you’ve heard it, and that you cannot but rise to your feet because of the glory of it. I'm not quite sure whether they got there tonight.

Still, Messiah is Messiah, and whether the performance is stellar or just satisfying, one could borrow the theological term ex opere operato to describe its effects. It works by itself.