There had, in fact, been such a crush at the ticket queue that the cache of concert programs wasn’t sufficient to go around. Whether one had the scriptural texts by Charles Jennens (1741) in hand or not, the Gemischte Chor Zürich under Artistic Director Joachim Krause showed the great work as worth its weight in gold. Accompanied by some twenty chamber musicians from the Tonhalle’s orchestra, the accomplished amateur choir took the benefit of a professional configuration.

Ivana Rusko © Tania Rotondaro
Ivana Rusko
© Tania Rotondaro
Living in England after 1712, the German-born Handel turned increasingly away from the operas that had secured his reputation and began to focus increasingly on choral works that met the demands of popular taste. In 1740, invited to visit Ireland, he completed the three-part Messiah oratorio and its orchestration in a mere 24 days, performing it first in Dublin in the Spring of 1742, then in London a year later. Originally written for a more modest scale, the number of voices enlarged over the centuries, and numbered all of 80 at the Zurich performance.

The work itself falls into three major parts: firstly, the prophecies by Isaiah, and the Annunciation by the shepherds; secondly, a concentration on the Passion of Christ, which usually ends with the Hallelujah chorus – but ended farther forward here to split the concert nicely into two halves, allowing for a break; and thirdly, Christ’s Resurrection and glorification in Heaven.

Musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky wrote that unlike his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel seems to have shone in the light of public adoration. That King George II rose to his feet at the end of the Hallelujah chorus − such that the whole audience followed suit − must have tickled the composer pink. Yet, writes the scholar, there was “no ostentation in his service to God”. Keeping that in mind, showiness of any order would not be in keeping with the composer’s original intention, and as such, the Zurich performance was almost spot on. The very humanness of the evening was what endeared it most; here were neighbours, parents, friends all raising their voices to “the Glory of the Lord”. Our audience, too, was thrilled with the now-familiar Hallelujah chorus; I even caught someone to my far right merrily tapping his fingers on his knee. Indeed, when Chinese tourists three seats ahead filmed the Chorus on an iPhone, people were good-spirited enough to once let the aberration pass.

Tackling Messiah for a lay choir is no small undertaking. Barring a somewhat passionless alto section, the choir met the task with aplomb. The singers came in solidly on cue, and were attentive to the conductor without exception. I could only wish the soprano section could enjoy a little stronger representation, asked as they are to hold up the melodies.

The evening’s soloists were varied in performance skills and aptitude in English, which can be a sore point with native English speakers living in Switzerland such as myself. Baritone Georg Gädker had a superb command of his diction, putting a clear consonant at the end of each word that demanded it, and his was a commanding stage presence. When in a prophecy he sang “I have seen a great light”, the hall itself felt illuminated. Tenor Benjamin Glaubitz ‘s, too, was a clean if conservative performance in more of a narrator’s role. Nevertheless, his talent was promising, and his English diction very good.

Mezzo Marie-Claude Chappuis’s upper range was commendable, and her words were understandable, but she had difficulty marrying the higher and lower registers. I would have liked an even, homogenous sound from the top to the bottom of her range: the “passagio” from one into the other to be both smooth and seamless. While Ivana Rusko's soprano solo had mastered this skill nicely, the mezzo’s voice often broke into something of a “Sprechstimme”, an entirely different sound, and one that I think of as better suited to Kurt Weill than to Handel.

As for the players, concertmaster Peter McGuire is to be commended for his tight and inspired leadership of the chamber group; as is Peter Solomon, for his superb mastery of the twin-task of harpsichord and organ, instruments crucial for tempi to choir and players alike. But a special Easter bouquet goes to Heinz Saurer for his shining trumpet solo in “Behold I tell you a mystery”. Without a doubt, a trumpet played to such perfection could indeed “raise the dead incorruptible”.