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RSNO: Handel’s Messiah

at Royal Concert Hall

* * * * -

A good Messiah, but not a great one.

Image of RSNO: Handel’s Messiah
Photo: Max Höllwarth

Tonight’s RSNO performance of Handel’s Messiah was to feature Iestyn Davies, the great countertenor, and Miah Persson, the fine Swedish soprano. However, it turns out both have been substituted! The good news is that both their substitutes are very good indeed.

Davies has been replaced by Scottish mezzo soprano Catriona Morison, who famously won both prizes at the Cardiff Singer of the World in 2017, and since then has been making her reputation all over the world. Morison is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (right next to the concert hall) and clearly feels at home: she is indeed the star of the evening.

The substitute for Miah Persson is the fine young English soprano Rowan Pierce, who won all the prizes at the Royal College of Music, and since then has been making a name for herself on the concert platform, including with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and on the opera stage. She proves a very good substitute.

With these two excellent women, the male soloists somewhat pale in comparison. Glasgow tenor Thomas Walker began as a brass player at the Conservatoire in Glasgow, but then studied singing at the Royal College of Music. Clearly, he has a good voice, but at times it feels underpowered, and also the acoustic of the Royal Concert Hall is not too kind to his voice. His Ev’ry valley shall be exalted doesn’t seem to dominate as it should.

Similarly Ashley Riches, the young baritone, is not as authoritative as he should be in his aria, Why do the nations. Of course, it’s true that the women get many of the best arias, and Morison’s He was despised is truly great, beginning quietly with great delicacy and building up to a great operatic climax. The sopranos also song well together in their duets, such as He shall feed His flock.

The orchestra tonight was a smaller chamber orchestra size, with around twenty-five musicians, dominated by strings. However, this was probably the kind of orchestra that Handel used in Dublin 1742 at the premiere. The RSNO musicians play well, as expected, under the energetic conducting of chorus director Gregory Batsleer, and he makes sure they are very much in harmony with the hundred-strong chorus.

Batsleer has built the RSNO chorus into an excellent ensemble, and they clearly relish all the great choral arias the Messiah provides, including the Hallelujah Chorus, although Batsleer has some difficulty getting the audience to their feet for the chorus. Perhaps the programme notes should give advice on this as they do at the Usher Hall.

So this is a good Messiah, but not a great one. It is at times a bit lacking in atmosphere: the hall is only half full and the response is at times tepid. It is, of course, a very large hall, difficult to fill, and frankly lacks atmosphere. One can’t help comparing it to the annual Messiah at the Usher Hall on New Year’s Day: always packed and with a great atmosphere.

However, this Messiah is worth it to hear Morison: a world-class singer who is a product of a world-class institution, the Conservatoire in Glasgow, recently ranked number three in the world. Scotland should be very proud of both.