It is intriguing to follow the performance styles of Handel’s Messiah through the years. In Dublin in 1742, Handel used strings, trumpets and timpani with his own organ shipped from London. The Foundling Hospital version added woodwinds and forces mushroomed over the years to huge choirs and orchestras including, according to one tale, six trombones and three sets of drums in what must have been an ear-splitting Handel spectacular. More recent performances have slimmed forces back allowing us to hear the work as originally written. In this astonishing performance by the Dunedin Consort with John Butt directing his Baroque players from the harpsichord, less was not only much more but gave fresh insights into one of the most well-known classical works.

Helen Charlston
© Benjamin Ealovega

With barely a dozen string players arranged on the left of Butt’s central harpsichord, a tiny chamber organ at the rear and a hand-picked choir of eight on the right, forces were indeed lean and lithe. When the four soloists arrived, bowed and then joined the choir, I felt that this was going to be a particularly interesting Messiah, all set in the lovely St Mary’s Cathedral with an acoustic that let voices soar.

The sinfonia gave us a taste of things to come with delicate controlled phrasing, full of minute detail, Matthew Truscott leading his sprightly mellow band as cellists Jonathan Manson and Lucia Capellaro marched along steadily. The counterpoint throughout the performance was fresh and rippling with excitement, the string players keenly watching Butt but I noticed also glancing sideways at Truscott adding an unpredictable live organic zest, each phrase alive with new possibilities.

The soloists were uniformly impressive with tasteful ornamentations in the da capo arias and all completely alive to their texts. Guy Cutting’s beautifully clear tenor almost made time stand still, growing long notes in his opening “Comfort ye” and effervescently lively in “Every valley”, movingly plaintive in his recitatives. Against brutally percussive strings, Cutting’s dramatic “Thou shalt break them” was so vivid you could almost feel the potter’s vessel shattering as he fixed the audience with hard stares, every word tumbling out. Bass-baritone Michael Mofidian’s splendidly muscular deep voice brought character, truly “shaking the nations” with a darkness as black as ink. A powerfully lyrical “The trumpet shall sound” was a highlight, Paul Sharp’s note-perfect trumpet blending impeccably.

Dunedin regular Rachel Redmond’s soprano was sweet and lively, joyfully floating her notes in “Rejoice greatly” delivered with a huge smile as the strings playfully danced along. “I know that my redeemer liveth” was beautifully sung with deep conviction, Redmond’s wonderfully pure voice ringing out. The alto has some of the best arias and Helen Charlston was sensational in her heartfelt interpretations, her mezzo warm and burnished in the lower register opening out thrillingly, every word crystal clear and I loved the ornamental flourish in “But who shall abide”. Her mood changed in “He was despised”, meltingly sorrowful, turning to anger in all the shame and spitting. Charlston is a singer to watch.

The chorus was splendid, bursting with energy, the soloists blending in seamlessly adding spectacular heft. Sopranos had to work hard against strong altos and basses, but there was gloss when it was needed. The detail was astonishing, each phrase curated by a spirited Butt, standing at his harpsichord, bobbing left and right as he urged the players along, enthusiastically moulding the chorus, keeping the momentum going, the text leaping from the score. Messiah is a hardy annual, but performed here – where every note and word really mattered – it sounded brand new.