The audience at Symphony Hall was treated to a memorable performance of Handel’s Messiah by conductor Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society last Friday evening, Dec. 3. This writer has probably heard or performed in more “Messiahs” than he cares to remember, but Christophers’s expressive and insightful interpretation made this perennial Christmas ornament sound fresh and vibrant.
It was evident from the opening notes of the “Sinfony” that the orchestra was in fine technical form; the strings in particular, with guest concertmaster Christina Day Martinson serving in the traditional role of “Leader,” have never sounded better. Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed to discover that the orchestra was still playing in the dry, clipped, non-vibrato style that passes for historical performance in many circles these days, despite the fact that the historical and musical evidence for it is slim at best, and certainly not applicable uniformly to all styles and genres. The human voice was held up during the Baroque era as the ideal model for instrumentalists, who were constantly being told to listen to singers and play like they sang. Happily, Christophers began to urge his own players to do just that, and by the second part of the oratorio the orchestra was actually creating a sustained legato and sometimes matching the singing lines of the chorus and soloists.
The solo singers were all first-class. Soprano Sophie Bevan’s extraordinary breath control enabled her to lighten her voice and perform coloratura passages with crystal clarity. Alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers started out with a limited expressive range and some shaky intonation (the fact that the organ and harpsichord seemed to be tuned in two different temperaments didn’t help matters), but any reservations were swept aside by her brilliant and riveting performance of the aria “He was despised.” Singing from memory — a rare treat in an oratorio performance — Wyn-Rogers was able to communicate the meaning and feeling of every word in this deeply moving aria. The men, tenor Allan Clayton and baritone Sumner Thompson, also have fine voices, and one looks forward to hearing them again after they have a bit more experience and seasoning. Surprisingly for a performance billed as “historically informed,” the soloists were quite understated in their use of ornamentation, but what they did use was tasteful and lovely.
The H&H chorus was nothing less than one virtuoso instrument. Their diction was impeccable, their sound was glorious, and they had no problem matching Christophers’ fast tempi note for note. He also conducted with a fine sense of dramatic pacing, reminding the audience that Handel brought to Messiah decades of experience as an opera composer. Christophers also knows the words of this great work, feels them deeply—and wants his listeners to do the same. Most specialists in the field acknowledge that rhetoric and rhetorical gestures are important aspects of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century performance practice, but few actually make it part of their performances. Christophers did last night. A noteworthy example was the chorus “Lift up your heads,” in which the singers asked “Who is this King of Glory?” as an actual question, and answered it emphatically with “The Lord of Hosts.”
In 1831, Ignaz Moscheles, the great Romantic piano virtuoso and a pioneer in historical performance practice, made the following entry in his diary after reading about a performance of Handel’s Messiah: “I swallowed my dinner hastily, so as not to miss a note of this masterpiece.” Those who ate their dinner quickly last Friday would have also made the right choice. This Messiah was not to be missed.