Boston surely has the longest-lasting tradition of annual Christmas-time performances of Handel’s Messiah of any city in the world, going all the way back to 1815, when the newly-founded Handel & Haydn Society began its annual series. But in fact Handel’s great work may well be the oldest composition that has never been out of the repertory for so much as a year somewhere, ever since it was first performed in Dublin during the Lenten season of 1742. Naturally, over the last 269 years, there have been changes — sometimes quite drastic changes — in the way it has been performed. After Handel’s death, Messiah became enlarged occasionally for performances at grand festivals in which both the chorus and the orchestra grew to Mahlerian size. In the 1780s Mozart was commissioned to re-orchestrate the work in Vienna, adding a full complement of classical-era woodwinds (including piccolo) and brass, to make up for the passing of the Baroque continuo tradition in which the harmonies were filled out by improvising keyboard instruments. The Victorian-era theorist Ebenezer Prout made his own version with substantially the same ensemble, a version that was performed widely in the United States because it was among the most accessible of editions here, published by G. Schirmer.
I’ve followed the Boston tradition intermittently, from near and far, for a half century. One December in the late 1950s (while I was a high school student in Arizona), I watched an entire H&H performance of Messiah broadcast from Symphony Hall — the first time I had ever heard the entire score. That, of course, was a performance under the old dispensation, when both chorus and orchestra were large and the performance was serious and generally logy in feeling and tempo.
While a graduate student in New York in the mid-1960s, I got to know the next director of the Handel & Haydn Society, Thomas Dunn. At that time the study of Baroque performance practice was beginning to move outside the academy and into performances by long-established traditional ensembles. I was pleased that Dunn was to become music director of the Handel and Haydn Society and that he planned to turn the comfortable old amateur chorus into a professional ensemble that would perform its repertory with due attention to the performance styles of their times. “Due attention” at that time meant mostly using smaller choral and orchestral ensembles and adjusting matters of tempo, articulation, and ornamentation — the kinds of things that can be done by a knowledgeable conductor working with standard orchestral instruments. This approach is still largely the one employed when an ensemble like the Boston Symphony performs Handel or Bach.
During the two decades that Dunn led H&H, there was a further — largely unforeseen — development in the performance of Baroque music: the return on the part of many musicians to using instruments constructed exactly like the instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries, with a concomitant change in sonority, articulation, and even the basic pitch at which the orchestra was tuned. Prior to that time it was still older music, from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that most often involved the recreation of the original instruments, for the simple reason that most of them were no longer employed in modern versions and had to be reconstructed to play the older music at all. But as interest in early music grew, the performers themselves moved “authentic” performance practices, with historically appropriate instruments, closer to the music of the present day. It was happening in a big way with Baroque music in the 1970s, and by the 1980s had moved on to the Classical era and begun to include the early Romantics.
One of the people leading this charge with Baroque music in the United States was Martin Pearlman, founder of Boston Baroque (in 1973-74, under its earlier name, Banchetto Musicale). It is quite likely that the year 1967-68 that he spent in Amsterdam studying with Gustave Leonhardt moved him decisively in that direction. Already at that time Leonhardt was a strong proponent of using original instruments, or new instruments made as exact copies of originals, for Baroque music. Pearlman’s ensemble was the first early-instrument orchestra in the United States, and with that group he gave the first period-instrument performances of Messiah in Boston in 1981. (Handel & Haydn Society followed suit after naming Christopher Hogwood as musical director in 1986.)
The characteristics of this year’s Boston Baroque Messiah sound like those of the first in 1981. I haven’t by any means heard even a majority of them, but Pearlman’s program note speaks of introducing the now-generally-accepted style of faster tempos influenced by Baroque dance patterns (which are inherent especially in many of the arias and even in the some of the choruses). Handel never performed Messiah in a church and never conceived it, despite its Biblical text, as intended for any liturgical purpose. Rather it was conceived, like his other, and more typical, oratorios, for performance in the theater during Lent, when staged productions were banned. The more “theatrical” approach suited the work.
For Boston Baroque’s 2011 performances, orchestra and chorus numbered about two dozen performers each. This is enough to provide heft for the big moments (“Hallelujah” or the final “Amen,” for example) and yet to keep the texture transparent in the lively roulades of so many other choral passages. That lightness and clarity is essential, because Pearlman’s pacing is lively indeed. This is the most limber Messiah that I have ever heard. In many places, of course, that light and speedy tempo is utterly ideal (“His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light”).
For rhythmic passages with a strong dotted rhythm he follows the advice of Quantz and others, resulting in a lift off the long-held first note of the pair and a very rapid, energetic short note to carry momentum strongly into the next beat. Most of the time (the Overture, for example), this produces energy and drive, a feeling far away from the monotonous heaviness of Baroque overtures as performed 50 years ago. There was only one passage where this lighter approach seemed contrary to the text: In the opening of Part II, “Behold the Lamb of God,” the “air” left between the longer dotted note (which the choral singers break off with the silence of an interpolated rest) and the fast-moving connecting note did not communicate the change of mood in the text, to the darkness of the scourging of Jesus implied here. Certainly there is no element of the dance in the number, and it might seem suited to a more sustained and somber approach.
But that is only one passage from an evening that seemed so well paced, with one number moving smoothly into the next, as of a continuing narrative account, and providing the regular contrast between recitatives, arias, and choruses that makes the score continually alive despite the running time of this very large work.
The chorus was beautifully drilled for linguistic comprehension and especially for clarity in the lickety-split counterpoint of running lines at Pearlman’s tempos. Each of the four vocal parts had major technical challenges to overcome, and did so with panache; the more sustained lines that appeared in one or another part as counterpoint to the roulades gave life to all of the choral numbers.
The four vocal soloists—soprano Ava Pine, alto Julia Mintzer, tenor Keith Jameson, and baritone Andrew Garland, were all outstanding. They all have substantial operatic experience in roles well outside the Baroque tradition, yet they did not (as operatic singers tended to do with Handel a few decades ago) sing with big romantic voices and woolly, unclear, muffled runs in the vocal parts. The voices were bright in tone, very attractive in color, clear in diction, and expressive in affect. All made some effort to ornament repeated sections of their arias, which give life to the da capo form. In this regard the ladies were rather more daring, and Julia Mintzer in particular stood out. Andrew Garland’s strenuous aria “The trumpet shall sound” (the longest such number in the entire score) was heroically sung with a superb obbligato solo by trumpeter Robinson Pyle. (The audience could not restrain itself from breaking in with sustained applause at the end of that one number.)
All in all, this was a superb Messiah for the 21st century, presented with modern stylistic understanding of the kind of work Handel wanted, and with performers — instrumentalists, chorus, and soloists — who were able to meet the a splendid level of performance.