Ulster Orchestra and Belfast Philharmonic Choir perform together for what could be the last time

This year’s performance of Handel’s Messiah in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast takes place just over two centuries since its first performance in the city, when organist Edward Bunting – better remembered today as the transcriber of the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival - introduced the work to a local audience in the small Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street.

Then, in 1813, the Oratorio was heard with ‘full orchestral accompaniments’, which required Bunting to import additional singers and instrumentalists from Dublin to fill the gaps in his own local resources.

There are ‘imports’, too, in this Messiah in the shape of conductor Stephen Layton and the four young soloists, none of whom are local. But overwhelmingly the performers are from Northern Ireland: the 90-plus strong Belfast Philharmonic Choir, for example, dwarf Bunting’s choir of 24 singers.

Instrumental support comes from members of the Ulster Orchestra on a more authentically Handelian scale (22 players to Bunting’s 30). In addition, there is a chamber organ and harpsichord, the latter ably played by the Phil’s chorus-master, Stephen Doughty.

From the opening notes of the ‘Grave’ we know immediately that we are in for a Messiah with a difference, as Layton sets a brisk tempo and accentuates the double dotted rhythm to its full extent. While this might not be the sombre mood to which many of us are accustomed, it is matched in sprightliness by the second part of the Overture in which the strings excel in clarity and brightness.

The brisk tempo and lightness of touch are maintained as the Oratorio moves through Handel’s settings of Jennen’s libretto, drawn from the Old and New Testaments, from the psalms and prophecies of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ to texts drawn from Paul’s Epistles and the Book of Revelations.

The aria ‘Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion’, in particular, is taken at speed, but still allows soprano Katharine Watson to add decorative ornamentation and yet sound light, crisp and clear.

Throughout the Philharmonic Choir is superb, their rhythmic attack, precision of diction and varying dynamics showing exactly what a large choir – of the sort favoured in the  19th century, if alien to the Baroque period – can bring to Handel’s rousingly expansive choruses. They excel in crisp marcato and staccato phrases, as in the first chorus ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, and the later ‘For Unto Us a Child is Born’.

This contrasts with the exquisite and gentle diminuendo of their singing at the end of the Chorus: ‘All We Like Sheep’. How refreshing to hear Handel sung with such variety of tone colour and dynamics. 

Layton pares certain aspects of the performance to the bone. Several recitatives are accompanied only by solo violin, cello and harpsichord, while still allowing each soloist to be heard clearly, and to soar above the minimalist accompaniment. His reading of ‘He was Despised’, combined with a moving interpretation by mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, is especially effective, as the strings build up the tension before the return to the original melody.

Layton’s conducting throughout is distinctly extrovert, with wonderfully bold gestures towards both orchestra and choir. And it is extended to members of the audience too, as when he unexpectedly turns towards the auditorium and, with a broad sweep of his arms, beckons them to their feet for the ‘Hallelujah’. No one is left in any doubt about what they are to do.

In ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, one of the best known and most evocative sections of the Oratorio, Ulster Orchestra trumpeter Paul Young gives an almost faultless virtuoso performance in this demanding and exposed solo part. His ornamental trills are set in delightful counterpoint with the strong singing of bass, Neal Davies.

The Finale – the fugal Amen – typically allows the chorus to shine. Layton emphasizes the a capella nature of the opening bars, allowing the Philharmonic singers to outline the fugue subject, before he gently – and subtly – brings in the strings, almost at ‘sotto voce’ level.

The fugue builds up to its final climax in a stunning rendition of the Amen, and brings the Oratorio to a resounding conclusion. This becomes the real culmination of the work, rather than the Hallelujah Chorus.

Messiah holds a special place in the British and Irish choral tradition, as the most popular and frequently performed Oratorio in these islands, much loved by music societies and audiences alike. Such was its popularity in the later 19th century that critics referred cuttingly to its appearance at Christmas time as ‘the annual outbreak of Messiahtide’.

It was a standard work in the repertoire of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir, who performed it no less than 16 times in the first quarter century of its existence. David Byers’ programme notes are, as always, well judged and informative, placing Messiah in its social and historical context and giving insights into the accepted musical norms of Handel’s day. His carefully researched little essays would be a sad loss to concert-goers were the Ulster Orchestra to fold.

This is, as things stand, a real possibility. As many will know, the UO is currently threatened by imminent closure due to cuts in arts funding. So when we hear the Chorus [shortly before the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus]: ‘Their sound is gone out into all lands and their words unto the ends of the world’, one thinks of the 14,000 plus petition signatures gathered by the Save the Ulster Orchestra campaign, which were delivered to Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, earlier this month, alongside colourful handprints of over 5,000 local schoolchildren.

The petition was signed by many conductors, rank-and-file musicians and supporters from all over the world, with scores of signatures and comments from America, Australia and mainland Europe.
Messiah has, of course, a specifically Irish connection, having been written by Handel in Dublin, and first performed there in April 1742. This gives particular resonance to this year’s performance by the UO and Belfast Philharmonic Choir.

Could this be their last performance together? Could Edward Bunting’s pioneering performance of the work in 1813 end with a final Messiah performance in 2014 by the two pillars of Belfast's classical musical life? The Save the Ulster Orchestra campaigners, a host of international signatories and many ordinary concertgoers, hope not.

Visit the Waterfront Hall website for information on forthcoming concerts.