Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

IT is always well-attended, but the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union’s 135th New Year concert of Handel’s Messiah officially sold out the Usher Hall on Monday, and that capacity house added to the palpable atmosphere of community optimism.

There were obvious reasons, of course: a growing sense of post-pandemic security in audiences, and the presence on the podium of Scotland’s pre-eminent composer Sir James MacMillan, conducting the work for the first time.

The Choral had made much of that in their pre-concert marketing, but just as significant – and surely an asset at the box-office – was that three of the four soloists on the platform were Edinburgh-born, and the fourth, tenor Kieran White, trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Add to that the fact that two different pairs among them were drawn to a singing career through the National Youth Choir of Scotland or have recently been mentored as Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, and this was very much a home team.

Both of these last qualifications apply to Edinburgh soprano Catriona Hewitson, whose first utterance, after the brief instrumental Pastoral Symphony in Part One of the work, was a memorable highlight. It takes a very special singer to reveal that, “There were shepherds abiding in the field” and make the Nativity story sound a fresh as the day’s headlines.

Hewitson also had the last solo words, in the Part Three aria If God be for us, accompanied by just orchestra leader Greg Lawson and first cello Christian Elliot for what was another sparkling moment that revivified Handel’s masterpiece.

To differing degrees, however, that freshness of approach ran through every element of MacMillan’s first Messiah, on which his careful shaping of the instrumental music, from the opening Sinfonia onwards, was matched by very precise dynamic control of the chorus. The choir is currently on very fine form indeed, the sopranos a beautifully clear integrated ensemble and the tenors carrying their line with a power that belied their fewer numbers but never sounded strained.

Baritone Paul Grant set the standard for the clarity of the libretto with his immaculate diction (with the choir close behind), and both White and mezzo Catherine Backhouse showed original invention in the tasteful, never over-egged, ornamentation of their arias.

This was the new generation of young voices, bringing a light touch to a venerable work that is a staple of the capital’s calendar, reflected in the younger singers who have joined the choir and younger freelance players in the orchestra. The conductor could not have made his Messiah debut in finer company.