Messiah, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

Vasily Petrenko, the young Russian principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, attracts such glowing reviews that it's only fair to assume that there will be one hurdle at which he'll fall.

Handel's Messiah presents just such a challenge, but, on his first encounter with the score, Petrenko scored another success. Demonstrating a sure feeling for the work's character, his management of the recitatives could scarcely have been bettered, nor his attention to rhythmic shaping, handling of moments of emotional urgency, and natural moulding of cadences.

With the excellent James Clark clearly relishing leading a chamber-sized RLPO, the lighter orchestral textures contributed to a refinement that seeped into the Royal Philharmonic Choir. Producing a sprightly sound, of arresting intensity and focus, it unfolded its contrapuntal movements with seamless ease. Even at its most thrillingly punchy, there was a sustained quality. If this was not a performance of robust swagger, it more than made up for that in its vitality and litheness, and acknowledgment of the spiritual side of the text. With brisk but never hurried tempi, elegant ornamentation, and the omission of a few numbers, this Messiah flowed beautifully.

Matching Petrenko's airy interpretation, the soloists approached their arias in the same refreshingly unfussy manner. Elizabeth Watts, gently exquisite in "I know that my Redeemer liveth", drew a firm if slender line, and was quietly luminous in describing the shepherds keeping watch by night. Hilary Summers caught the darker colour of her contralto numbers to perfection, while she and Watts synchronised their phrasing and timing in a lilting "He shall feed his flock".

Standing in for the advertised bass, Darren Jeffery made "The people that walked in darkness" attractively enigmatic, reserving his energy for a weighty yet nimble "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?". Allan Clayton brought a sure tone to the tenor numbers, lyrical in the opening "Comfort ye", and impressively controlled in "Thou shalt break them". The orchestra was incisive and warm, stylish in its support of the vocal lines, poetic in its Pastoral Symphony.

If Petrenko lacked anything, it was perhaps that authoritative grasp of Handelian sweep that gives such choruses as "Hallelujah!" their stature.