IN all the decades I've been covering the RSNO's annual Messiah performance, I've not heard one like yesterday afternoon's.

Apart from one strategic error by the conductor in the final Amen chorus, where he tried to be clever and structure it as a slow and long-range accumulation, but ended up only with something woolly and lacking impact, it was an amazing performance, not for every Handelian, I suspect, but totally refreshing to these ears, with not a second-hand thought or formula in sight. It was a chamber Messiah, without a shout on the horizon, not even in the Hallelujah Chorus. Conductor for the day was Jonathan Cohen, a Baroque specialist, music director of the group Arcangelo and associate conductor of William Christie's Les Arts Florissants. His tempos for this Messiah were even and unhurried. Not once was it driven hard. Not once were any of the recitatives, arias or choruses overstated. The major "structural" and presentational difference to the RSNO's usual format was that they ditched the mezzo or alto soloist, and used, instead, a counter tenor, which utterly changed the weight and perspective of the great number, "He was despised" into something completely heartbreaking.

And what a team of soloists Cohen had at his disposal: every one a star, with countertenor Tim Mead, tenor Bejamin Hulett, the fabulous bass Neal Davies, and glorious German soprano Lydia Teuscher, all in outstanding form.

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And the RSNO Chorus was just gosmacking. I didn't know they could sing with such restraint: Cohen had them compact and singing softly most of the time, quite the antithesis of what choirs usually do in The Messiah. Wonderful.