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Sunday, April 26, 2009


Classical Notes by William Charlton-Perkins

Most of us who caught Haydn’s Nelson Mass at Mariannhill and Handel’s Messiah at The Playhouse recently will attest to having enjoyed these performances. Hats off to Naum Rousine, for his stylish, exciting accounts of both these taxing scores, for husbanding his large forces with such a sure hand. We are fortunate to have a conductor in our midst capable to pulling out the stops, both as a fine classicist and as a sensitive but grand interpreter of the High Baroque idiom.

Congratulations also to the Durban Symphonic and their director Rosalie Conrad and to the Playhouse Company Chorale and their chorus master, Gerhard Geist, for delivering singing of such a high calibre. Ditto the fine soloists who graced both occasions with their committed performances. A word of appreciation, too, to the Playhouse Company’s creative team for its imaginative semi-staged production of Handel’s masterpiece.

For those who might like to preserve their memories of these exciting events, a number of fine audio recordings are available, if not from local stores, certainly online via Amazon or other reputable outlets. My recommendation for the Nelson Mass is Richard Hickox’s superlative account on the Chandos label. Coupled with Haydn’s Ave Regina and Missa Brevis, this features British soprano Susan Gritton on crystalline form, leading a quartet of soloists that includes Pamela Helen Stevens (mezzo), Mark Padmore (tenor) and Steven Varcoe (baritone) with the Collegium Musicum 90. Sir Neville Marriner’s idiomatic EMI recording from Dresden is also a strong contender.

Among the many Messiah recordings available, an all-time favourite remains Sir Charles Mackerras’s ground-breaking version on EMI. Recorded, unbelievably, 42 years ago, this still holds its head up high in crystal clear stereo sound. Its wonderful roster includes Elizabeth Harwood, Dame Janet Baker, Paul Esswood, Robert Tear and Raimund Herincx, the Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra. If you are a stickler for performances on ‘Original Instruments’, Trevor Pinnock’s fine 1988 take on Deutsche Grammophon Archiv features The English Concert and Choir, with Arlene Auger, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance, Howard Franck and John Tomlinson. These are just two desirables in a crowded field. Many others are recommended online.

For those feisty enough to explore other Handel oratorios, two masterpieces close in period to Messiah reward discovery. Paul McCreesh, one of the great Handelians of our age, leads a memorable Solomon. This Archiv issue stars German countertenor Andreas Scholl. His vibrant contralto evokes the glory days of Kathleen Ferrier. Not least among the set’s fine soloists is Susan Gritton, a memorable Queen of Sheba. Listen to her heart-stopping account of Will the sun forget to streak near the close of Act 111, or hear the miraculous Nightingale Chorus that closes Act 1, to name just two of many musical gems found in this masterpiece, besides the joyous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba: you will be amazed that Solomon is not every bit as famous as Messiah.

The same could be said of Samson, the oratorio that follows Messiah in the Handel oeuvre. Harry Christopher’s recording on the Coro label couples his regular ensemble, The Sixteen, with the quaintly titled Symphony of Harmony and Invention. The line-up of soloists here includes another of Britain’s finest sopranos, Lynne Dawson. Just two of the many glories to be found in this infinitely recommendable work are the haunting contralto solo, Return o God of Hosts, and the dazzling soprano show-stopper, Let the Bright Seraphim.

Keeping the emphasis on Handel and Haydn, two upcoming KZNPO Sinfonia concerts at St Thomas’s Church on Musgrave Road are worth noting. This Sunday (April 19) at 11h00 Lykele Temmingh conducts Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor Overture, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major (Soloist Jennifer Cox) and Schubert Unfinished Symphony.

Naum Rousine returns to KZNPO podium at St Thomas’s on May 3 at 11h30, with a programme featuring Handel’s ubiquitous Arrival of Queen of Sheba, Handel’s Organ Concerto Opus 4 no. 1 in G minor (soloist Christopher Cockburn) and Haydn’s Symphony no.96. A fitting addition to the global commemorations of the 250th and 200th anniversaries of these composers’ deaths in 1759 and 1809 respectively. - William Charlton-Perkins