It’s a long way from Bruckner and Wagner to Handel. But such is the life of orchestral players and with the help of English choral specialist Stephen Layton the WA Symphony Orchestra made the leap from last week’s Germanic romanticism to this weekend’s Messiah.

conductor Stephen Layton
On Friday 2nd December a 25 piece orchestra and the WASO chorus joined with Layton and four English vocalists for a Messiah that, despite some untidy moments, had enthralling dramatic clarity.
From the opening Sinfony Layton revealed his flair for crafting through dynamics, particularly the use of restraint. Repeated phrases became whisper soft echoes while exciting crescendos were built from repeated sequences. Layton’s sense of dramatic direction was applied to the megastructure of Messiah too. The outer sections were performed with joyful vigour (although the fugues revealed a vulnerable chorus tenor section) while Part Two was the dramatic epicentre with pianissimo fragility and drawn out harmonic suspensions.
The soloists sang with the purity of the English choral tradition, sometimes barely audible over the orchestra but effective in their use of light and shade. Mezzo soprano Helen Charlston’s langorous ‘He was despised’ had stillness and intimacy while Tenor Gwilym Bowen’s tremulous performance of ‘Thy rebuke has broken His heart’ over extremely soft string accompaniment brought to the foreground a section of Messiah I’d never previously given much attention to. Robert Davies sang with a clean, smooth baritone bringing stateliness to ‘The trumpet shall sound’ with resplendent trumpet contributions from Brent Grapes. Soprano Eleanor Dennis ushered in Part Three with a shimmering ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ although her wide vibrato clouded her diction.
The dramatic clarity was interrupted by moments of disparity between the chorus, who were following the precise downbeat of Layton’s conducting, and the orchestra who tended to play behind the beat. Stewart Smith’s crisp contributions on harpsichord were an important anchor.
The work moved into hope and resurrection helped by the chorus’s assertive, agile fugue ‘Let us break their bonds’. The Amen, perhaps the greatest ever composed, was an unleashing of radiant splendour helped by the dense organ chords from Jonathon Bradley who had moved from the orchestral keyboard to the pipe organ loft for the finale.

In the program notes Layton, who will soon notch up 200 performances of Messiah, described the final moments of the work as a ‘vision of what heaven may be like’. His dramatic conviction made Handel’s musical centrepiece of the Christian faith a powerful testimony. It’s no wonder that a work of such intense spirituality remains banned in places like China. The enthusiastic response of the capacity audience indicated the ongoing appeal of Handel’s Messiah – perhaps especially during a season that can be so easily overwhelmed by consumer chaos.

This review was first published in Limelight magazine.