The Hallé’s annual performance of Messiah has a venerable tradition. Begun by Charles Hallé in December 1858, it’s been the subject of interpretations by some of its great permanent conductors and for many years an exercise in the grand effects of massed choral singing beloved of our forebears. Barbirolli, theatrically, used to have his choir shout the last ‘Hallelujah!’ of the allegro tempo as loud as they could – that certainly made you jump!
This year’s conductor, John Butt, is from a different stable. His award-winning recordings of great choral works of the baroque period, Messiah among them, are usually made with very small forces and represent, as closely as scholarship can define, the original details of a particular performance.
Someone once said that if you want to imitate the performance conditions Handel faced, you should stage the smallest orchestra you think you can get away with, and then make sure that they outnumber the chorus. But there’s no chance of that in a Hallé performance in the big space of the Bridgewater Hall (which was virtually sold out on Saturday) – so what we had was historically informed, rather than historically authentic.
It was a brilliant success in practice. John Butt performed the work without cuts, and brought a sense of the lively, dancing rhythms of much of Handel’s music, a near-operatic pace, as the units of the first part (in particular) unfold like scenes on a stage, and a good ear for dramatic effect, which Handel’s instincts provide and which can be leveraged well enough in an enlarged setting such as this without deserting the sound qualities of the original instrumentation (the chattering oboes duplicating the violin lines are always really effective).
He didn’t completely buy into Barbirolli’s idea that the chorus should begin ‘Glory to God’ sotto voce, to fulfil the ‘da lontano’ marking and make the angels glide into our foreground as if on the wing, but he had their accompanying trumpets up on high, sounding from the very heavens.
And for the final chorus he threw modesty to the winds and had Christopher Stokes open up the resources of the Marcussen organ (instead of a chamber instrument) for once, to accompany the choral peroration – a spine-tingling moment.
His soloists were a gifted quartet: outstanding among them the tenor Thomas Walker, who brought the arresting style of baroque opera to his recitatives and was outstanding in the Passion music, and Mhairi Lawson, who beamed like an angel, with the glow of telling the Gospel story as if we’d never heard it before. They, and mezzo Anna Stéphany and baritone Robert Davies, were perfectly on-message with baroque embellishments and shakes – although I noticed that ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was closer to the Victorian preference for effect through simplicity, and none the worse for it.
The Hallé Choir sang with consistent precision and excellent attack, particularly in ‘O Thou that tellest’, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ and, of course, ‘Hallelujah!’ – well worth standing for. Tradition has its place, and there is still a thrill in seeing an entire house acknowledge the presence of the King of Kings.
(The historical note in the printed programme needs some adjustment, particularly if it’s to be used again any time. Charles Hallé’s first Messiah in Manchester was in December 1858, when he began a ‘Manchester Choral Society’ series – with his new orchestra and alongside his other concerts – that continued until 1861. The only reason the oratorio doesn’t feature in the collected programmes of his orchestral concerts until later is that, although there was a ‘repetition’ added to the latter in March 1859, subsequently the Choral Society series included the work in December 1859 and December 1860: only when the two series were amalgamated in 1861 does the December Messiah appear as part of the ‘new look’ season. Look at the concert records and contemporary newspapers and it’s all there. And Sims Reeves, the great Victorian soloist, was a tenor.)