City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

Four stars

AN interpretation of Handel’s Messiah that makes the listener aware of both the work’s musical and liturgical sophistication is a special thing, yet that is what the Dunedin Consort routinely achieves under artistic director John Butt. For the award-winning Scottish baroque vocal and instrumental ensemble, Messiah has become their Stairway to Heaven or Bohemian Rhapsody.

With a choir of a dozen, from which the soloists emerge, and 15 players, plus Butt’s harpsichord, it is nevertheless not the compact ensemble that separates it from other performances as much as the rigorous tempi - Part One here came in at well under an hour - and ear-catching individual moments.

Some of these came from counter-tenor James Laing, whom Butt would have extend a phrase at the conclusion of a speedy recitative. Soprano Sarah Power’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth also benefitted from being rather swifter than it is usually heard. Many of the choruses, on the other hand, seem to dictate their own pace, including Hallelujah and the concluding Worthy is the Lamb.

This performance was not flawless. The opening of Behold the Lamb of God at the start of Part Two was surprisingly ragged, instrumentally but especially vocally, until the trio of sopranos brought it back under dynamic control. And the balance of Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs made it less a chorus than bass Matthew Brook with chorale accompaniment. He did, however, deliver one of the evening’s outstanding solo arias in a Why Do the Nations? that had all the angry vehemence of a street corner preacher. With tenor James Way’s voice particularly rich at the bottom of his range, all the soloists were characterised by a full, broad tone, which also made irrelevant the relatively small forces involved.

Butt’s version of the score includes parts edited from most modern performances, including a rarely-heard section of The Trumpet Shall Sound and the recitative and duet that follow in Part Three. That made the complete work as long as most performances, despite the brisk pace, but the Dunedins don’t waste a moment of the music.