Handel: Messiah (CD Review -The Age, Melbourne, 2009)

AMONG several performances of Handel's timeless oratorio at this time of year, those offered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus hold a good deal of attractiveness, largely due to the participants' musical expertise and the administration's financial edge in attracting an impressive line-up of guest conductors and soloists.

To direct last weekend's brace of readings - Sunday night's one a sold-out affair given to an enthusiastic audience - British conductor Stephen Layton brought a fresh vision to the Messiah that made its impact through a careful employment of dynamic contrasts as well as heightening the work's drama with sustained pauses for the cadence points in the work's well-known choruses.

The guest solo singers made an engrossing study in contrasts. Soprano Miriam Allan's crystal-clear refinement turned I know that my Redeemer liveth into an unexpected, mobile delight and the cut-down accompaniments to her pair of Part the Second arias demonstrated, as few other readings have, the subtlety of Handel's melodic arches.

Bass Jonathan Lemalu achieved the near-impossible by cleanly articulating the ornate passage-work of Why do the nations. After a shaky start, alto Clint van der Linde delivered an irreproachable He was despised, while tenor Paul McMahon gave the whole enterprise a felicitous, light-timbred start.

The MSO Chorus responded with enthusiasm to Layton's calls for explosions of sound, contributing a novel vitality to many well-thumbed pages like For unto us and His yoke is easy.

While it's hard to single out a particular quarter of this carefully prepared body, plaudits must go to the solid tenor line, holding its own in thick-meshed ensembles and generating a strong thread during exposed passages. The chamber MSO forces experienced few lapses in concentration, even if the upper strings might have gained energy from a few more desks.

Clive O'Connel

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