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Messiah Usher Hall, Edinburgh

THE first chorus of Part Two of Handel's Messiah, Behold the Lamb, coming after an extended interval of meeting friends and family over picnic lunch, is a particular test of the participants in the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union's traditional New Year Messiah.

If a slight lack of focus by both conductor James Lowe and the choir at that point meant that this performance didn't quite jump that fence, it was only noticeable because of the quality of the rest of the afternoon.

Lowe's tempi ranged from a very leisurely He Was Despised for Louise Collett, billed as a mezzo but blessed with a lovely rich contralto range, to as fast an And Suddenly There Was With The Angel soprano recitative (Emma Morwood) as I think I have ever heard, but the whole narrative of the piece could hardly have been clearer, helped by superb diction from all the soloists as well as the chorus. That was particularly noticeable in the unaccompanied conclusion to All We Like Sheep and opening to Since By Man Came Death when almost a hundred voices on stage had the cohesion of a much smaller ensemble - an observation that might be applied to the balance between the sections and dynamic range as well.

The solo voices were all happily of Usher Hall scale, with tenor Jamie MacDougall leading the way in a nice line of understated ornamentation and baritone, and Scottish Opera emerging artist Andrew McTaggart proving more than able to project the lower bass notes as well as handle a very pacy Why Do The Nations?

Praise, too, should go the orchestra led by Greg Lawson, whose role in the trio accompaniment to Morwood's If God Be For Us was another highlight.

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