The trouble with today’s music scene is that decades of easily-accessible, recorded material often conditions our experience of concerts and gigs.
As I walked into St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral for Handel’s Messiah by the Goldberg Ensembles of , I was slightlyamused at how two amiableladies scoffed politely at the programme when they saw that the musical complement consisted of just seven instrumentalists.
Because of its celebrity status in the repertoire and because of the many colossal renditions of the Hallelujah chorus, many people tend to view The Messiah as a grandiose work. The Goldberg Ensemble’s performance, led by Michael Laus, proved exactly the contrary.
This is a work of great intimacy and the fact that it was a smaller ensemble than usual was not only probably closer to Handel’s original first performance, but also added to the atmosphere.
The only thing that worked against the musicians and singers was the space itself. St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral is an imposing building, but it has a very peculiar acoustic that can create deaf pockets.
This resulted in some moments of imbalance between parts. Never- theless, the work moved forward at a steady pace and there were moments of fine musicianship.
Playing and conducting at the same time is no mean feat, yet it was all smooth and assured
Laus conducted most of the performance from the harpsichord. Playing and conducting at the same time is no mean feat, yet it was all smooth and assured.
The maestro also made some very wise artistic decisions, including quite a few cuts from the original score.
Although purists might find this musically blasphemous, it was not unusual for baroque performances of opera and oratorio to include cuts and even additions from unrelated works. The resulting cuts meant that the whole evening was just the right duration.
Laus also provided contrast with the choice of continuo accompaniment. Most of the harpsichord continuo was given to the more dramatic and grand sections such as the arias and fugal choruses, whereas Joanne Camilleri provided support on the positivo organ in most of the choral parts. Yaroslav Miklukho on cello and Michelle Scicluna on double bass provided a firm bass line throughout.
The rest of the ensemble was made up of Nadia Debono and Marcelline Agius on violins, Sarah Spiteri on viola and special guest Russell Gilmour on trumpet. The latter played the few solo trumpet passages beautifully, particularly the obbligato part in the bass aria The Trumpet shall Sound.
The quartet of vocal soloists was a well-balanced group and, although the score never calls for a vocal quartet, they all blended well together.
All four soloists displayed agility, clarity of diction and a sense of drama that was never melodramatic. Soprano Gillian Zammit gave a wonderfully dramatic performance in the first part, yet also had moments of great lyrical beauty in the reflective arias of the second part, most notably in the aria I know that my Redeemer liveth.
Claire Massa’s dark mezzo tones were no less dramatic, although her delivery sometimes lacked a certain warmth.
Tenor Nicholas Mulroy possesses a wonderfully English tone that is ideal for this work. His opening Comfort Ye, a crucial moment in the whole oratorio, had the right balance of prophetic solemnity and human pathos.
The quartet was completed by Albert Buttigieg, whose resonant bass voice was equally at ease in the dark passages of The people that walked in darkness to the bright heroic tones of The trumpet shall sound.
The choir, perhaps the most important element of the piece, was mostly secure with good diction, which in Handel’s English works is not an easy task.
Handel was notorious for not being a native English speaker and often shifts stresses to accommodate a musical phrase. The fugato in the final chorus are a case in point and the choir sang such passages effortlessly.
The female voices tended to sound more secure than their male counterparts, especially in the fugal entries.
The males were often overly cautious with their entries, although once they settled into a piece, they sang with great enthusiasm.
The choir tended to sing better in the homophonic passages, with some fantastic moments in And the Glory of the Lord, Since by man came death and, of course, the Hallelujah Chorus, which they sang with much gusto.
During the performance there was also an attempt at working with different lighting. I did not find this particularly effective, especially since the lighting changes tended to be very basic, and were often lost in the vastness of the well-lit edifice.
This performance was also part of a larger project called Rejoice!, partly funded by the Malta Arts Fund, which seeks to bring together different art forms and will include a photographic exhibition by Sergio Muscat in February at The Palace Hotel in Sliema.