Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

Now a firm fixture of Edinburgh's contemporary Hogmanay programme as well as the capital's long-established New Year celebrations, the 129th performance of Handel's oratorio by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union may be chiefly remembered for the debut of German baritone and BBC New Generation Artist Benjamin Appl, a real talent of power, confidence and exemplary diction who delivered his first aria, The people that walked in darkness, in Schubertian style and continued to treat the score's most operative moments as Lieder. With instrumentalist Andrew Connell-Smith as his foil, the trumpet has rarely sounded with such fluidity.

He was in fine company however, particularly in his platform neighbour, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, whose first extended "Comfort ye" opened the vocal score as beautifully as I've heard, and whose command of recitative and engagement with the chorus was, by contrast with Appl, engagingly theatrical. He and mezzo Annie Gill, a couple off-stage as well as on, decorated their lines with careful ornamentation, Gill particularly effectively on He was despised. Appl and soprano Susanna Andersson (wife of conductor Tecwyn Evans) stuck more strictly to the score, and the combination of all four was full of colour, particularly the vocal duet of the two women on He shall feed his flock, the sonic sister of a beautifully-played Pastoral Symphony that rather belied the raft of changes to the line-up of the players in orchestra from that published in the programme.

Amid such riches, "The Choral" still managed to shine in its own right, Evans encouraging the texture of the chorus over its power, and the singers responding with beautiful measured poised at the conclusion of the sequence of choruses in Part Two and again for Since by man in Part Three. Chorus-master Michael Bawtree was bolstering the tenor section, so wins credit for performance as well as the drilling.