Music review: Dunedin Consort: Messiah, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The John Butt and the Dunedin Consort breathed new life into Handel’s Messiah, writes David Kettle

The Dunedin Consort
The Dunedin Consort

Dunedin Consort: Messiah, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh *****

Neither Omicron uncertainty nor an afternoon power cut in South Clerk Street could halt the Dunedin Consort’s annual Messiah at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall. But to see it as just an inevitable seasonal warhorse would be missing the point entirely. Under John Butt’s urgent direction, this was a fresh, searching Messiah, brisk and vivid, and delivered as if its ink was still wet.

Butt’s intimate ensemble of 15 instrumentalists and 12 singers performed as though they were discovering the music for the first time, and were eager to share its story with the audience. It felt all the more immediate, too, following Dunedin chief executive Jo Buckley’s expression of gratitude that we’d come together to listen in such uncertain circumstances – and that it might prove our last live music for a while.

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    Let’s hope not. But even if it was, what a way to herald a pause. Butt’s Messiah felt more like being immersed in an opera than experiencing an oratorio at one remove, a vivid, probing survey of the life of Christ as recounted by those affected, with a remarkable vividness of textures from Butt’s orchestra that was more than a match for Handel’s sonic picture painting.

    It was a directness mirrored in his quartet of soloists’ contributions. Mhairi Lawson’s I know That My Redeemer Liveth, for example, was a simple, sincere expression of faith, and all the more powerful for that, delivered with her exquisite silvery soprano. Countertenor Owen Willetts was more vocally theatrical but no less compelling, while bass Robert Davies offered a restrained but nimble The Trumpet Shall Sound with equally agile, characterful support from Paul Sharp on natural trumpet.

    It felt as much an expression of faith in the transformative power of musical performance as in Christian teaching – a lesson all the more crucial in our precarious times.

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