Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

THE Nativity sequence of Handel’s Messiah that ends Part One, and is the excuse for the work’s performance at this time of the year, can often seem to be the lightest music of its three hours. In this reading by conductor Jane Glover – with soloists soprano Gemma Summerfield and counter-tenor Rory McCleery – it was much more profound. Glover’s preceding Pastoral Symphony was slower and longer than is now common, and, exquisitely played by the strings, led by Greg Lawson, it set the scene for the mix of gospel and Old Testament texts that follow.

If Ferrier-award winner Summerfield was the star turn, the rest of the singers on stage were also on very fine form. McCleery has been astonishingly busy in the past few weeks, with the Dunedin Consort, and his own Marian Consort, but his voice still had real presence and weight in the hall. Tenor William Wallace’s distinctive phrasing and tone was matched to precision pitch, and if bass Trevor Bowes’s thick vowel sounds were an acquired taste he was more than up to Glover’s high speed Why Do The Nations? towards the end of Part Two.

Using neither a baton or a score, the conductor is a Handel expert whose latest book is on the composer’s London years, and Edinburgh Royal Choral Union responded eagerly to her direction, with some fine quieter singing, consistent internal balance of the sections, and notable coherence in the sopranos, whose ensemble was acknowledged by Summerfield as well. The run of choruses at the start of Part Two were especially revealing, with a much less staccato approach to All We Like Sheep than is currently fashionable (and which has the unfortunate effect of stressing the last word of the phrase) making He Trusted In God, which follows a short tenor Recitative, much more emphatic in its absolutely necessary use of that approach.

Details such as those made the 133rd annual New Year Messiah one that will stand out in this choir’s illustrious history.