23 December 2013

Review: Handel's Messiah - Auckland Choral

Auckland Town Hall, 16 December 2013

Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Anna Pierard, mezzo soprano; Christopher Bowen, tenor; Shane Lowrencev, bass; Auckland Choral; Pipers Sinfonia; Uwe Grodd, conductor.

Reviewer: Ella Tunnicliffe-Glass

Auckland Choral’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah are an institution, and it would be easy for conductor Uwe Grodd to rely on tradition and Christmas spirit to draw his audiences. Gratifyingly, this was not a Messiah that rested on its laurels. Excellent soloists joined Auckland Choral and Pipers Sinfonia to present an engaging and enjoyable performance, but one that struggled at times to present a united interpretative approach.

Tenor Christopher Bowen’s opening recit and aria were entrancing, with thoughtful ornamentation and pleasing interplay between singer and instrumentalists. He continued to impress throughout the oratorio, particularly in the still and affecting “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” and declamatory “Thou shalt break them”. Shane Lowrencev was a commanding presence in “Thus saith the Lord”, bringing out Handel’s word-painting in the ornamentation of the word “shake”. Unfortunately, Grodd’s extremely fast tempi in some of the later arias proved too much for even this usually agile singer, and Lowrencev came across as an accompanist to Huw Dann’s trumpet in “The trumpet shall sound”, rather than as an equal. Acclaimed New Zealand mezzo Anna Pierard brought pathos and intensity to the famous aria “He was despised”, and was not put off by occasional lapses in intonation from the violins. Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli proved an excellent choice, the aria “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” providing the perfect vehicle to display a facility for both vibrant ornamentation and affecting legato passages. At times, though, it was difficult to make out her words, a problem she shared with the tenors and basses of Auckland Choral.

The choir sang well overall, particularly in the fiery choruses “Surely he hath borne our griefs” and “He trusted in God”. At times, slower tempi might have resulted in more precise singing, and relieved the choir’s difficulties with the passagework in “All we like sheep” and “Let us break their bonds asunder”. Grodd’s decision to present the Messiah in its entirety was admirable. However, on this occasion, the choir seemed to struggle with the great length of the work, seemingly “saving themselves” for the more famous choruses. Judicious cuts might have resulted in a more consistent performance.

Once again, the audience was treated to a full arsenal of continuo instruments: two harpsichords, chamber organ, Town Hall organ, theorbo and bassoon, in addition to Pipers Sinfonia’s cello and bass sections, which were thoughtfully deployed in various combinations. Grodd’s choice of harpsichord and bassoon for the energetic final chorus of Part One was particularly apt. James Tibbles’ chamber organ was a delight, its gentle sound perfectly matched to Mazzulli’s interpretation of the recit “There were shepherds abiding in the field”. The cello section matched their articulation particularly well to the keyboard instruments, adding bite to the chamber organ and sustenance to the harpsichord. Unfortunately, Stephen Pickett’s theorbo was almost inaudible despite amplification, highlighting the difficulty of including a notably quiet early instrument in a modern orchestra performing in a large venue.

Many of the players in Pipers Sinfonia have early music affiliations, and concert master Amelia Giles lead the group in a light, energetic, and “baroque” interpretation of the work. The strings brought out the nuances of Handel’s score, and demonstrated biting precision in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”. For the most part, Pipers Sinfonia’s interpretative decisions were very successful: Mazzulli, too, is experienced in early music, and the orchestra complemented her clear voice. In contrast, Pierard took a more Romantic, operatic approach to her arias and recits, as did Auckland Choral, and at times the contrast between musicians was disconcerting. In the duet “He shall feed his flock”, the contrast between Pierard and Mazzulli’s vocal styles detracted from their individually excellent performances. Selecting such contrasting voices did no favours for any of the singers, and in fact was disruptive to the overall listening experience: the first few bars of each entry were spent readjusting to a new sound world.

Nevertheless, this was a Messiah that held the listeners’ interest from beginning to end. The overall high quality of this performance, combined with moments of true brilliance, reminded listeners that this is a work worth hearing not just for tradition’s sake, but for its own merits.

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