Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

Five stars

THE classical music audience has its habits, and Handel’s Messiah has become associated with New Year performances, however more obviously it sits at Passiontide, when it was first performed in 1742.

In the event there was a very respectable house for the RSNO’s Easter Messiah, with, I am guessing, a good few last minute sales and first-timers in the audience - if only on the evidence of the general confusion when conductor Gregory Batsleer suggested we get to our feet for the Hallelujah chorus. As a listener with perhaps three score Messiahs to look back on, I envy those hearing it for the first time in this performance.

A double call-off from soprano Miah Persson and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies resulted in a pair of quality substitutions in Yorkshire’s Rowan Pierce, already an established favourite in Scotland, and Edinburgh’s Cardiff Singer of the World winner Catriona Morison, hot-foot from having sung Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Wuppertal on Good Friday.

Under Batsleer’s singular, dynamic and highly effective conducting style, a period-band-sized RSNO, led by Emily Davis and including a few of the orchestra who had not been on its US tour, was on crisp form from the start while tenor Thomas Walker set the standard for sharp diction, dramatic delivery and tasteful ornamentation of the melodic line. The bar had been set so high that the first entry of the chorus perhaps seemed flabbier than it really was. Certainly the choir provided some of the most memorable ingredients later in this performance, particularly in the sequence of choruses in part two, Batsleer’s bold quiet and slow interpolation of And With His Stripes a startling success, and the measured approach to the dynamic of the closing Amen just as effective.

Pierce was on exquisite narrative form, Morison full of drama on He Was Despised, and bass-baritone Ashley Riches stalked to the centre of the stage to ask Why Do They Nations? like an appalled bringer of bad news.

Mostly, Batsleer presented the work at a very brisk pace, knocking a couple of minutes off John Butt’s best time for part one, by my reckoning. A Messiah for novices that Handel would have loved.