Messiah, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow


The first two days of January are a drab time in Scotland, after the junketing of Hogmanay. So there's a tradition of spicing things up with performances of Messiah. For some reason, this oratorio has attached itself to this period, attracting many punters who, one suspects, never otherwise see the inside of a concert hall. At least, the person next to me, who beat time, stamped her feet and sang along throughout the evening, clearly didn't know how to behave.

We are now established in what someone called the "Watkins Shaw era". Shaw was the musicologist who produced an edition of this well-known piece with all the extra instruments, Romantic additions, and other spurious elements removed, heralding an age of fresh tempos, limpid textures and deft vocal embellishments. Stephen Layton's performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus was the triumph of Shawdom - brisk, lightsome, pastoral.

Perhaps the principal honours should go to Timothy Dean, the new chorus director. He is clearly a man who knows what he wants, and gets it. The singers had a way of pronouncing the opening consonants just before the beat, and allowing the tone to explode at the key moment. It gave the rhythm a breathless, slippery quality, like a windsurfer skimming the waves.

At first, it was hard to believe that they would keep up with Layton's quicksilver tempos, but they flashed and sparkled to the very end. "For unto us a child is born" was a dancing scherzo, fully worthy of the Italian cantata from which this music comes.

Nevertheless, there were other moods in the choral singing. One was reminded of Handel's German origins in the sober, formal fugue of "And with his stripes", and the unaccompanied "Since by man came death" was a mysterious haze of colour.

The soloists, lithe and transparent, had been chosen with just such a performance in mind. The tenor James Gilchrist, straining a bit in "Comfort ye", soon acquired an excitable, nervous delivery that blazed into defiance in "Thou shalt break them with a rod". The alto part was sung by a counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. This is a voice that seldom works in opera, but here it was just right - the singer had a kind of Romantic ghostliness of tone. He could do tragedy, too: the immensely slow "He was despised" was desolate, spare, a poignant image of loneliness.

The delightful soprano Gillian Keith is well known in Scotland. Her sound was pure and creamy, and she was agile as a bird, but she could be seductive, too, especially with the violin obbligato of Edwin Paling in "How beautiful are the feet". The bass, James Rutherford, had dignity but was the only one not quite at home with Layton's up-tempo style. The audience, however, appeared to miss the point entirely. After such a bracing show, they applauded glumly. My noisy neighbour didn't applaud at all. There's no pleasing some people.

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