As surely as Christmas comes, so do performances of Handel’s popular Messiah up and down the land. What is it that makes this work so universally popular? Although Messiah takes us to the end of Jesus’ life and beyond, it is of course the Christmas story in the first part which particularly appeals each December, but the sheer energy encapsulated in this special series of solos and choruses is as addictive as the well-known tunes. Every last seat was taken – nave, aisles and even the transepts in St John’s Kirk – to hear a version of the work harking back to its first performance in Dublin’s Musick Hall in 1742.

David Shipley © Maximilian van London
David Shipley
© Maximilian van London

The Dunedin Consort is a period instrument band, with fabulous gut-strung, peg-tuned strings with a chamber organ continuo, all directed from the harpsichord by John Butt. There were none of the usual massed choirs here, but just 12 hand-picked singers, including the four soloists with a male alto in the ranks adding extra Christmas spice to the tonal blend. When the choir came in, joining with the soloists, it gave a more integrated feel, but also allowed the momentum to build around groups of critical numbers, enhancing the theatricality. It is how it would have been done in Handel’s day.

John Butt unusually placed all the singers in front of the orchestra, coming together to form a semicircle to deliver an astonishing sound. The small numbers allowed an attractive lightness of touch just not possible from bigger choral forces, with rigorous attention not only to the diction but to the relative importance of the words. Although the music is well-known, for the listener, it was as if rediscovering how Handel constructed the parts as they interweaved with breath-sapping runs.

John Butt’s performance was mesmerising, standing at his slightly shoogly double manual harpsichord as he leant left and right driving the singers on, reaching over the instrument to conduct the players and somehow managing to hit all his own notes in between times. From the opening Sinfony, the detailed Baroque bowing made this this Messiah positively dance along, yet allowed more reflective moments to shine through. The backbone of any Messiah are the continuo players who just never stop, yet the two cellos, fretted bass and organ never missed a beat even with some of the speeds being spectacularly fast. The dotted rhythms in the Easter section were particularly biting.

The soloists all had to work extra hard, not only singing out in their own arias, but blending in with the choir for the meaty choruses. They carry the main story, the alto and tenor generally conveying grief and sorrow and the soprano joy and optimism, even in the darkest moments. Rowan Hellier’s alto was rich and bright in the upper range, but rather lost power in the lower register needed for parts of “But who may abide the day of His coming?”, but her “He was despised …” was very moving. Thomas Walker’s strong tenor was heartfelt and effective throughout, but vocal honours went to soprano Mhairi Lawson and bass David Shipley. Lawson barely looked at her score and smiled as she sang, her bell-clear voice banishing the darker moments to the far corners of the building. “Rejoice greatly …” was a particular highlight as she thrillingly ornamented the return of the tune, raising broad grins from some of the other singers, and yet she turned from utter joy to express the tender profoundness of  “He shall speak Peace …” within the same aria. Shipley’s lovely bass voice was authoritative, with a sock-trembling depth to it, so  in “Thus saith the Lord …” all Nations received a proper shaking.

One of the great excitements which we all have to wait for is the addition of a pair of Baroque trumpets, notoriously difficult instruments with air holes instead of valves, each instrument as long as your whole arm. Paul Sharp and Brendan Musk made a splendid sound blazing out in the Halleluiah Chorus, the sound ricocheting off the old stone walls and arches of the Kirk. “The trumpet shall sound” was an especially stirring duet with David Shipley on fine form, with the strings dancing their way to the final call.

There were too many wonderful moments in this performance to single out. What made this a memorable Messiah were the small forces blending into a big dynamic sound, crystal clear diction and both singers and players simply bursting with infectious energy. As the final Amens with trumpets and timpani faded away, I wondered how different the first performance might have sounded all those years ago in Dublin. The beaming smiles from performers and audience suggested it surely must have come close.