Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

SHE may be petite, but soprano Rowan Pierce is evidently more robust than many sopranos. As she once again stepped in to replace an ailing colleague at a Scottish concert, her agent must surely be pointing out to choirs and orchestras that they’d save themselves a great deal of anxiety by simply booking her in the first place.

The annual Edinburgh Royal Choral Union New Year Messiah – this was number 132, which knocks more recent celebrations of Hogmanay into a cocked hat – has become an opportunity to assess younger talented soloists and Pierce slotted perfectly into what was a highly accomplished quartet.

She and bass Edward Grint perhaps represented the more modern face of singing, both with exemplary diction and expressive approaches to ornamentation. Her phrasing of I Know That My Redeemer Liveth was exemplary and Grint’s dramatic contributions culminated in a memorable flourish to the last bars of The Trumpet Shall Sound.

The classic style of Irish mezzo Raphaela Mangan and American tenor Tyler Nelson contrasted nicely, Mangan’s superb lower register contralto tones evident from her opening But Who May Abide, and some individual vowel sounds in his concert-opening recitative and aria only adding interest to what was a fine old-school reading of Nelson’s part.

There is a youthful look and sound to the whole tenor section of this chorus these days, more than making up for their comparative lack of numbers. Chorusmaster and conductor Michael Bawtree has his ensemble precisely drilled and there was always the feeling of power in reserve as the piece unfolded: the opening of Part Two’s And With His Stripes was, startlingly, almost sotto voce, and the closing bars of All We Like Sheep beautifully poised and paced.

With the Edinburgh Pro Musica Orchestra led by Greg Lawson, soloing alongside Pierce on Part Three’s If God Be For Us, some lovely continuo playing and John Kitchen adding resonant pedal notes on the Usher Hall organ, the unique character of the ERCU Messiah is both traditional and, in crucial details, always contemporary.