Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

AMONG the more recent delights, for the seasoned attender, of the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union’s annual New Year Messiah, is the delayed reaction of the Hogmanay tourists in the top tier of seats, unaware of the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus, and not having invested in a programme, which includes the invitation to do so.

This year’s performance contained many more musical bonuses as well, however, beginning with one of the finest editions of the scratch “Edinburgh Pro Musica Orchestra”: the oboes were Cath Earnshaw and Rosie Staniforth, by way of illustration. The musicians, conducted by chorusmaster Michael Bawtree and with John Kitchen at the organ, shone much new light on the work ¬– in Handel’s varied approaches to continuo, for example.

The choir were joined by a fine line-up of soloists too, with tenor Nathan Vale fascinating from the start, a distinctive touch of vibrato in his baroque approach, and American bass-baritone Tyler Simpson particularly impressive in Part 2’s Why do the nations? If mezzo Emilie Renard seemed slightly under-powered on He Was Despised, her voice never lacked colour and expression. But if the bar had already been set high by the time Mhairi Lawson stood to introduce the Nativity story, her seemingly effortless engagement with the narrative, the music and the chorus raised it further. Her later delivery of “the first fruits of them that sleep” in Part 3’s I know that my redeemer liveth brought fresh meaning to the line.

Although a little ragged on either side of the interval on the tricky His yoke is easy and the opening of Behold the lamb, the chorus, augmented by two dozen guests from the Orkney Winter Choir directed by Glenys Hughes, were also on fine, poised, and measured form, all the way to the sopranos’ peal of bells on the closing Amen.