in: Reviews

December 12, 2009

Lively Messiah from Boston Baroque

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Martin Pearlman conducted Boston Baroque in a lively performance of Handel’s Messiah at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday, December 11th, at 7:30 p.m. A repeat performance is scheduled for Saturday evening, also at 7:30.

For many music lovers, it isn’t Christmas without Messiah, and both Boston Baroque and the Handel and Haydn Society have been obliging Boston audiences with fine performances for many years. Last week, Handel and Haydn offered three performances in Symphony Hall, with two this weekend by Boston Baroque in the more intimate Jordan Hall. In fact, Messiah concerns not only the Christmas story but Christ’s passion and resurrection as well, and was first performed in Dublin in April, 1742. Its message of joy and hope, however, can be said to transcend seasonal limitations.

Messiah is above all a work for chorus, and Boston Baroque’s choir of twenty-one voices was nothing short of spectacular. German-born and Italian-trained, Handel never ceases to amaze us with his almost unfailing sense for nuances of English declamation. Delivering declamatory passages, both loud and soft, with the clearest possible diction, the Boston Baroque singers also showed extraordinary precision in the many fugal and dance-like numbers. My favorite was the delightful “For we like sheep have gone astray” with its evocative wandering motives and imitations depicting poor lost souls, but one could single out any number of other choruses for special mention.

Although Messiah is unique among Handel’s oratorios in its essentially contemplative rather than dramatic nature, there are vividly dramatic implications in several of the passages so carefully selected from Old and New Testament sources by librettist Charles Jennens. The four soloists were outstanding in their ability to navigate between lyrical, narrative, and declamatory styles. Canadian tenor Lawrence Wiliford, opening Part I with the lyrically expressive prophecy “Comfort ye, my people” from Isaiah shifted easily into declamatory style toward the end of this recitative, later displaying convincing operatic fury in the aria “Thou shalt break them” that precedes the “Hallelujah” chorus. Making his Boston Baroque debut, bass-baritone Timothy Jones sang with sure diction and intonation, rising to virtuoso heights in his final aria “The trumpet shall sound.” Soprano Amanda Forsythe, although fighting a cold, sang with her accustomed exquisite tone and superb musicianship, reaching a high point with her affecting ornamentation of “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” which opens Part III. The alto solos were ably sung by mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, whose clear, straight tone and beautiful diction enhanced the expressiveness of the arias that Handel originally wrote for the great English tragedienne, Susanna Cibber.

Boston Baroque’s virtuoso string band, playing on period instruments, was reinforced by a pair of oboes and, where called for, trumpets and timpani. Peter Sykes provided the organ continuo, with Martin Pearlman conducting from the harpsichord. Perhaps taking a cue from the final chorus of the first part (“His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light”), Handel’s oratorio has been freed in recent years from the Victorian stodginess of the big chorus/big orchestra approach formerly visited upon it. Some may have found Pearlman’s tempi, which pushed the capabilities of singers and players to their limits, literally breathtaking, but his careful attention to the minutest details of articulation and dynamics and keen understanding of the dance measures that underlie so much of this music kept everything in its place. Although a note in the program absolved us from any obligation to stand for the “Hallelujah” chorus (the tradition arose only after Handel’s time), about a third of the audience  got to its feet, and there was a standing ovation from the capacity audience at the end of the three-hour long performance.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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