Few concerts could be as festive as Handel and Haydn’s Messiah outing in Symphony Hall. The passageways were adorned for the holidays; carolers warbled eagerly in anterooms. Good cheer prevailed for this 156th annual traversal on December 4; the H and H tradition with Messiah goes back even further, as the Society’s opening concert on Christmas Day 1815 featured excerpts from the oratorio, launched — it bears mentioning — at Eastertime in Dublin in 1742. The collection of scriptural citations that Charles Jenners assembled for the composer, covering as it does Christ’s Birth (part one), Death and Resurrection (part two) and the redemption of believers (part three) is indeed most suitable for the Easter holiday. However, due in part to H and H’s pioneering efforts, Messiah (n. b., not “The” Messiah) has become a staple of North American choral societies at Christmastime. Not a few vocal soloists depend on this tradition for an end-of-year infusion of income!
Though Harry Christophers conducted the work here in 2007, this series of performances marked his first as H and H’s Artistic Director. The initial concert proved extremely pleasing but not — despite Christophers’ well-reasoned arguing in the program that he put together an edition of the work — which has many variants — to maximize drama — particularly moving. (The only number that stood out as not among the usual inclusions was the not terribly distinctive choral passage from Romans X, 18, “Their sound is gone out”). The orchestra, with the signal and unfortunately very exposed exception of the trumpet soloist, turned in excellent work, particularly in some of the swifter-tempo movements. The evening found the Society’s chorus (to my eye seventeen women and twelve men) in sterling form, which strengthens the backbone of any Messiah. Clarity of words and unity of phrasing distinguished their excellently blended work.
The four soloists were all accomplished and fluent in Handelian style, though most trills were suggested rather than executed. There does seem the sense that H and H favors British “Commonwealth” or at least British-based singers in programming: the only American aboard, the highly capable Tom Randle, has made his career largely in Britain, where his intelligent artistry, nimbly ductile if somewhat dry lyric tenor and TV star-looks have made him something of a press darling. Of the four, Randle was the only singer to bring something like full verbal commitment to his text, which he seemed at times — not inappropriately — to be channeling as witness. His vivid recit “Comfort ye”, marked by considerable and largely well-chosen ornamentation, thus set up expectations for a dramatic engagement with the Biblical words and deeds not borne out in the rest of the evening’s performance, fine as it was on purely musical terms.
One would scarcely wish for a return to the Victorian orotund approach to oratorio text that can be heard in recordings of the likes of Clara Butt; but in the last generation or two of “historically informed practice” something seems to have gone out of much singing that leaves verbal content largely uninflected. Though Suzie leBlanc sang the soprano music (here including the entire post-Pifa section) with scrupulously clean and attractive tone and exhibited admirable technical facility, one narrative passage sounded much like another. One could scarcely describe her “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, as Andrew Porter memorably wrote of Eleanor Steber’s 1950 recording, as “rising to shining affirmation.” (Margaret Marshall on John Eliot Gardiner’s early ’80s set manages to blend H. I. P. sensibility with meaningful words: it can be done. (On Christophers’ own quite wonderful recordings of Handel’s Chandos Anthems from the 1980s, Lynne Dawson and Ian Partridge, while singing with tonal restraint and immense style, also infuse their words with deep feeling.) LeBlanc was utterly delightful in quicksilver passages like “Rejoice greatly.”
Christophers opted for Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor in the alto music, which deprived some of the grander numbers (like “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and “He was despised”) of much timbral contrast. Taylor made a smooth, ethereal, always audible but not very dramatic sound, even when he blended in occasional color from an underlying baritonal timbre. The Briton Matthew Brook — like le Blanc a newcomer to Handel and Haydn concerts — furnished a sound, healthy if modestly glamorous bass-baritone in the John Shirley-Quirk mode. His breath control and (relative) agility held him in good stead in his arias, and Christophers and he laid out the accompanied recits with architectural clarity, if (again) less then full emotional impact. About half the audience joined in the rather dubious tradition of standing for the “Hallelujah” Chorus; but prolonged cheers followed the evening’s final “Amen.”