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Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, USHER Hall, EDINBURGH

We're coming to the end of the yearly time for Messiahs, though not yet to the end of the winter cold.

As a result, Edinburgh's 126th annual New Year performance of Handel's great milestone contained a number of last minute replacements.

Stepping up to a familiar podium, Michael Bawtree, chorusmaster of the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, replaced Martyn Brabbins as conductor. Massed before him for this triumphant occasion were not only his own choir, but also their guests and by now regular collaborators from the St Magnus Festival Chorus in Orkney.

It turned out Bawtree had some nippy tempos up his sleeve. Too often the Messiah is treated with reverence rather than imagination, and one still hears performances of this work that are simply far too slow and pompous. That said, it doesn't do to just play the whole thing fast. Here, especially in the darker time of Part 2, some numbers were too quick to allow the performers to whip enough malice out of those leaping intervals or wring the venom from the harmonies.

The soloists were a well-balanced quartet, with Roland Wood's baritone voice, like deep water, at the foundation. Madeleine Shaw's fine mezzo-soprano became more engaging and better in tune as the concert warmed up.

Eamonn Mulhall's distinguished tenor voice, coming easily and excellently to him, and with a very quick vibrato reminiscent of an earlier era of singing, was a pleasing replacement for tenor Nicholas Mulroy – though he could do with giving the conductor a glance, particularly in the recitative.

Soprano Mary Bevan was the most engaging, and her more meaningful communication of the text was very welcome.


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