The Messiah gets to be performed so often that audiences take it for granted and conductors endeavour to bring something different to the work in a bid to get us to see it in a new light. Brett Weymark certainly wanted to bring something distinctive to his performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on Saturday evening; he only half succeeded.
He was, it has to be said, starting on the back foot for, even before the solemn Sinfonia started the inexorable path to the final, great Amen, the publicity supporting the concert rather clouded the issue. Not that there were any false claims; merely a number of confusing half-truths.
Half truth Number One was the claim that this marked a “resurrection” of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus. In that the Chorus has not sung in public since 2010 that was true, but as any half-decent chorus refreshes a large proportion of its membership through auditions every two or three years, there was nothing particularly new about the 160 singers ranging across the width of the Cultural Centre Concert Hall’s auditorium. What was not up for debate was just how good this Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus was, drilled to an extraordinary level of excellence by Philip Chu. Messiah is quite a sing for any chorus, yet this one never flagged or showed signs of weakness. They sang with tremendous verve and precision, pitching and ensemble were flawless, diction and articulation magnificent and the sopranos, in particular, searing in the intensity of their tone. It might all have reached a shattering climax with the Hallelujah Chorus, but this was largely drowned out by the sound of seats thumping shut, programme books (and their multiplicity of enclosures) dropped to the floor and joints creaking as, in a mark of respect to British Colonial Power, the Hong Kong audience, almost to a man, staggered to their feet in the time-honoured tradition of acknowledging a long-dead monarch who, in an early performance of the work, decided enough was enough and got up to leave, causing, in the act, a major disruption to the performance (as such, that would seem to make King George II a true icon to Hong Kong audiences).
Half truth number two was the description of Xiao Ma as a “Countertenor”. He was not; he was a falsettist and while he possessed a fairly solid tenor register and could produce a reasonably hearty hoot on the top notes, between the two was not just a very obvious break, but one which Xiao manifestly was unable to negotiate. On top of that he delivered some weird diction; at the point where The Messiah reaches its most intense sorrow we heard the odd comment that “He was despy-Sid and acquainted with glee”.
Chen Yong was a true tenor, his voice light but sharply focused, and while at times he had problems riding over the top of what was a very large orchestra (I reckon there were almost 40 strings on stage, only a handful of which were placed on the reserve benches while Chen sang), he still managed to convey a strong sense of conviction, not least in his buoyant aria “Ev’ry Valley”. (Why did the programme book insist on calling all the arias “Songs”, which is something very different?)
Eclipsing all the other soloists in terms of sheer vocal presence was Brian Montgomery whose magisterial bass, delivered with wonderful aplomb and an almost operatic physicality, was an object-lesson in effortless projection and masterly delivery. He had no difficulty at all in overwhelming the massed orchestral forces sent to support him, even when he reverted to a bare whisper (“Behold I tell you a Mystery” was almost having a closely-guarded secret divulged), and his big arias were brimming over with latent drama. Rarely have the “heav’ns and earth” been so violently shaken, while the nations seemed likely to lose off an armed warhead so aggressively did they rage together (was Montgomery thinking of North Korea at this point?).
The most blatantly operatic moment of the whole performance was Yuki Ip’s entry on to the stage. As the Pastoral Symphony, here pared down to just two oboes and bassoon, bobbed along, she shimmied across the platform to cast her angelic soprano on to the assembled shepherds. She presented a truly effusive “Rejoice Greatly”, and the icing on the cake came when, as she sang with crystalline purity the worlds “For Christ is Risen”, the bleeping watch of a nearby audience member, drew attention to the fact that Easter Day had just dawned somewhere in Weymark’s native Australia. Unfortunately, her final appearance almost resulted in disaster when, in what can most kindly be described as a misjudgement, Weymark decided to open the Amen chorus with the four soloists alone. It was pretty shaky already, oozing with wholly inappropriate smnoochiness, but when Ip mistimed her entry it all fell apart to be rescued, almost farcically, by a peculiar mock-Irish jig from a lone violin, possibly in acknowledgement of the country in which Messiah was first performed.
And that brings us to Half-truth Number Three. The programme notes claimed that Handel wrote The Messiah in just twenty-four days. That is certainly true insofar that Handel did write enough of the work to be performed in Dublin in that time, but he spent many more years adding to and revising it for various subsequent performances, with the result that what we hear today rarely comprises what Handel wrote in those 24 days. Weymark had elected to use the Clifford Bartlett performing edition which, in brief, includes just about every bit of music Handel wrote, revised or changed in the work, leaving it to the conductor to decide which bits to include and which to leave out and thereby shaping the performance to his own ends.
Weymark’s choice was to cut lots from the last part, but leave most of the first two parts intact. That still left a great deal of music to get through, and to ensure he was done by 10.30 (in which task he succeeded magnificently) his tempi were, to put it mildly, brisk. “Let us break their bonds” was chaotic, but no matter how sorely tested the chorus was by Weymark’s breathless tempi, they responded magnificently, barking out “All we like sheep” as if they were a pack of hungry wolves descending in formation on their next feast. But while, in many ways, this Messiah represented an unequivocal triumph for an outstanding chorus, the real hero of the night was the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra who, despite their numbers, played with a precision and clarity of attack which went a long way towards achieving Weymark’s obvious intention of the giving the performance a crisp, desiccated “Baroque” feel. The violins showed astonishing uniformity, while the cellos, led by the glorious buoyancy of Richard Bamping, had a lightness which belied their massed ranks. Perhaps not trusting the chorus to stay in tune, Weymark had the organ doubling their parts throughout, and it is to the undying credit of Marsha Chow (and Ann Other on the organ stool), that this did not seriously impede the music; although the harpsichord did, in the event, seem a trifle superfluous.
This Hong Kong Messiah had lots to commend it, but ultimately it did not seem to know where it wanted to go. It was neither authentic nor romantic, neither intimate nor expansive, neither scholarly nor populist. Had Handel heard it he would, I’m sure, have found some of it perplexing, some of it strange and some of it vaguely familiar. But most of all he would, I suspect, along with everyone in the audience, have found it thoroughly enjoyable.