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Musical Pictorialism of Boston Baroque’s Messiah


Boston Baroque’s annual Messiah, performed on Friday, December 10 (and Saturday, Dec. 11) at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was indeed “a fine entertainment,” as intended by Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens. Music Director Martin Pearlman, who led the orchestra of period instruments and a top-notch chorus of twenty-one voices from the harpsichord, infused this much-revered work with fire and pathos, hope and joy.

Excellent diction and clear articulation by both choral and solo singers, reinforced by rhythmically sensitive playing from the orchestra, compelled us to renewed appreciation of the familiar  texts. Artfully assembled by Jennens from the Old and New Testaments in the King James Version and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, many passages in the libretto were clearly chosen with an eye to their vivid  imagery and potential for musical pictorialism. Messiah is typically said to be contemplative rather than dramatic, yet the drama is there even in the absence of actual protagonists, and Pearlman’s direction was very effective in conveying a sense of progression between numbers and scenes. Thus the opening tenor recitative, “Comfort ye, my people,” ends with the voice crying in the wilderness, leading into the aria “Every valley shall be exalted.” Here tenor Keith Jameson’s ringing top notes and solid lower range, not to mention a beautifully executed cadenza, displayed Handel’s pictorial musical language to full advantage. The chorus “And the glory of the Lord” completed the sequence from Isaiah with sharply executed contrasts between contrapuntal and chordal declamation. More drama was in store with bass-baritone Kevin Deas’s entry as Lord of Hosts, followed by countertenor Matthew White’s aria “But who may abide the day of his coming,” beginning in a swinging siciliano but ending in the frenzied prestissimo of the “refiner’s fire.” Spontaneous applause broke out after the superbly executed chorus “For unto us a child is born” that concluded the first scene. Here Baroque violins, doubled by two Baroque oboes in exuberant roulades, sounded almost like clarino trumpets. In the “pifa” music that opened the second scene, strings and oboes and a hushed drone of organ and bass produced exquisite tone color in imitation of the shepherds’ rustic pipes and bagpipes, while offstage trumpets accompanied the angels’ choir. Amanda Forsythe, resplendent in Christmas scarlet, brought her effortless diction and agile coloratura to the fore in the “Daughter of Zion” aria,  and matched her tone beautifully to Matthew White’s in the two-part siciliano lullaby that followed. The choral fugue on “His yoke is easy” was delivered with a lightness that brought its every nuance to the fore.

Opening with a solemn chorus in French overture style, Part II ranged in mood from somber to enraged. In the da capo alto aria, the opening “He was despised,” with its pleading lovelorn echoes in the strings, contrasted with the relentless chords of the smiters in the middle section. Although often assigned to a female singer, the alto aria in particular seemed to benefit from the range and penetrating power of White’s countertenor. The Hallelujah Chorus at the close of Part II was suitably triumphant as trumpets and sharply articulate Baroque timpani joined in the celebration.

High points of  Part III included Forsythe’s exquisite rendering of  “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and the baritone aria “The Trumpet shall sound,” with its virtuoso obbligato played by Robinson Pyle. Avoiding the stentorian pomposity that sometimes mars this famous piece, Kevin Deas treated it as a true duet, matching the trumpet’s roulades with equivalent virtuosity and even turning away from the audience to focus his attention on the trumpet interludes. Like his fellow soloists, Deas treated repeated passages as new explorations rather than repetitions of the same material, inserting the kind of rhetorical flourishes that go beyond mere virtuosity and would have been expected by Handel’s audiences. The final chorus contrasted powerfully declamatory harmony with a rousing fugal conclusion.

There is no getting away from the fact that the message of Messiah’s libretto may have been intended as an affirmation of Christian belief, specifically of the Anglican persuasion. But clearly its meaning for the diverse audiences that know and love Handel’s setting goes beyond sectarian concerns to an affirmation of life itself and its intimations of immortality.

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

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  1. I heard it on Saturday, and it was unforgettable. Spontaneous applause and an embrace between the two soloists after The Trumpet Shall Sound! I cannot even count how many times I’ve heard BB perform this, but it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time each time I do. This year’s performance was “over the top”! I barely have the vocabulary to describe how wonderful it was.

    Comment by Mary Lincoln — December 13, 2010 at 8:16 am

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