The Hallelujah Chorus is so desperately overplayed on radio, television, in advertisements and at all types of church services that it lost its lustre a long time ago for me. I went to last night’s performance of Handel’s Messiah in Christ Church Cathedral as a part of the Dublin Handel Festival with a slight feeling of dread, a sort of “here we go again” anticipation. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the chorus and indeed the oratorio as a whole.
The work is quite long and it is not unusual for ensembles to just perform the first of three sections with the Hallelujah Chorus from the second section tagged on, but sections of the work still possesses the power and relevance today that they possessed when it was first performed in 1742. The story goes that when King George II first heard the Hallalujah Chorus he was so moved with emotion he stood prompting all of his subjects to also stand and today audiences traditiaonally stand for this section of the work, although my personal theory is that they stand to relieve their sore posteriors after a lengthy second section!
The Cathedral Choir and The Orchestra of St. Cecelia gave confident and professional performances under the direction of Judy Martin, although at the beginning of the evening I felt Martin possessed only a tenuous hold over the performers. This rectified as the performance progressed and the major chorus sections in the second and third parts were well executed under her guidance.
The highlight of the evening was most definitely my rediscovery of the Hallelujah Chorus but equally remarkable was the chorus “Since by man came death”. Block chords performed by the a capella choir expertly hit the spot on the ear of equal temperament.
There are long sections of the work that are unremarkable and it falls to the performers to make these sections memorable. Most adept at this was the young alto Duncan Brickenden. It is so rare we have to opportunity to hear a male alto as there so many fine female altos. Of the four soloists Brickenden brought a simplicity a clarity and simplicity to his solos that seemed absent in the others despite their confident performances. Brickenden handled (no pun intended!) Handel’s word painting technique with ease and a friend who came with me to the performance perfectly summed up the evening saying “We’ll be laughing in melisma’s all night long!”