IN: Reviews

Still Waiting for My Messiah


Boston Baroque’s nimble and quick concert of Handel’s Messiah on Friday night at Jordan Hall is only the latest installment of a local performing history that goes back to within 51 years of the composer’s death. In our City’s 194 years of Messiah-mania, local audiences have heard versions reflecting many conductors’ visions, ranging from iterations with one player and one singer to a part up through monster concerts with casts of many hundreds. Since we’ve heard the Dublin version, the London Foundling Hospital version, Mozart’s re-orchestrations, Ebenezer Prout’s enlargements, we’re inclined to wonder if there is any right performance of the beloved oratorio.

In Boston today, though, it would seem that there is only one approved way to present a Messiah—the “take-away” version. Thirty years ago Boston Baroque (and later others) began presenting Messiahs with all of the romantic accretions taken away—but unfortunately the drama and expression were also sometimes shorn, as well as accuracy of tuning and instrumental dependability. Thirty years later Boston Baroque players have learned how to tune their early instruments and no one need worry about the trumpet cracking, etc. But the emotion that had been taken away, has not been restored.

As to the size of the forces employed, BB’s Martin Pearlman is possibly correct in his numbers for a recreation of the Dublin version, though Paul Henry Lang says that for the Dublin performance there were 9 soloists plus the choirs of Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By the end of the composer’s lifetime, there were performances in London’s Foundling Hospital with an orchestra of 40 and a chorus of 25—and in a space considerably smaller than Jordan Hall. The work really grabbed audiences of Handel’s era, and they must have desired deep involvement and immersion. Shortly after Handel’s death there were advertisements of concerts in Westminster Abbey with forces of 800.

The overture revealed the virtues and the faults of the entire evening. There were transparency and speed a-plenty. But the strings employed a rather mannered technique of short strokes and frequent down-bowing that sounded like…well I won’t use the s*w*ng word. There were little swells on every note and the dotted notes were very clipped, perhaps in accordance with 17th-century French overture convention, according to certain savants. The oboes were bright and the ensemble was reliably together and quite lively. But given the speed and sharp cut-offs from Pearlman, the opening sounded more like a fast-dance movement than the beginning of a poignant story of the birth and death of Jesus. This may be historically accurate, but that is really unknowable. For sure such a style couldn’t have been manageable with the band of 800 in Westminster Abbey in 1787.

The recitative and air that followed the overture were again emblematic of the larger proceedings. Tenor John McVeigh delivered the lightly accompanied recitative “Comfort ye, my people” with freedom and drama, and in his bright, pinging voice he impersonated a sometimes euphoric and other times wild and crazy biblical prophet. But in the air “Every valley shall be exalted” the orchestra’s rhythmic inflexibility and dynamic insensitivity gave the singer no room for nuance or expression. Chief among my disappointments was Pearlman’s apparent lack of deference to his soloists who often seemed to pull toward slower tempi and softer dynamics.

The chorus then came in with a chirpy “And the glory of the Lord” in which there was little dynamic variety or differentiation of mood in response to the text. Furthermore, the chorus of 22 didn’t contrast dramatically with the soloists. I recorded an average 65 dB(a) for soloist and orchestra as compared to an average of 68 dB(a) for chorus and orchestra. When the trumpets (in “The trumpet shall sound” Robinson Pyle’s beautifully ornamented tones pealed forth and earned the evening’s only spontaneous applause) and drums were added, the level reached 75 dB(a). I mention this, not because I yearned for the 90 dB(a) which one can hear from the BSO at Symphony Hall, but rather to note that a chorus, even one as fine as Boston Baroque’s, cannot be the great actor in the piece if its range is narrow and if its utterances are not shaped into noble phrases.

In fact, more than power, what was missing from the performance was quiet and repose. The only profound pianissimo (and one of only a couple of lump-in-throat moments) I heard from the chorus was in Part Three, where it began “Since by man came death” with hushed mystery. In general, Pearlman appeared more concerned with time-keeping than inflection. One saw from his large gestures a very steady beat but virtually no indications of dynamics. When he conducted from the harpsichord, there was no shaping at all. The result: an undifferentiated mezzo forte much of the evening, and more stepped dynamics than phrasing.

Baritone Andrew Garland intoned the recitative “Thus saith the Lord” like a brimstone preacher. He was dramatic in the best oratorio style. He shook the heavens, he raged, he told the story, and advanced the plot dramatically.

Ann McMahon’s rendition of the alto air “But who may abide” came across more as a stately dance than as prophecy, in part because the singer engaged with the audience by smiling and batting her eyes, and in part because the quick tempo (it’s in 6/8, so some swing is inevitable) did not allow her to be reflective. Later though, in “He was despised,” she finally showed some real fire.

The soprano Mary Wilson sang all evening with a luminous tone and heartfelt conviction. Her “Come unto him” was irresistible, and ended with a gorgeous, floated Tebaldi-like diminuendo.

It may be instructive to compare Pearlman’s recording of the oratorio with some others. At 131 minutes for all three parts, his seems to be the fastest on record. By comparison, John Elliot Gardner weighs in at 137 minutes, Andrew Davis at a moderate 146, and Beecham at a stately 161. The YouTube clips below provide some vivid contrasts:

I like early instruments performances which are emotional and engaged.  John Eliot Gardner’s “Hallelujah” has dynamic and rhythmic variety. Another historically inflected performance of which I’m fond is Andrew Davis’s from 1987. Boston Baroque’s Glory to God  from its Telarc recording is somewhat notey and beaty. A contrasting Beecham sample , begins with Jon Vickers in “Thou shalt dash them” and concludes with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Orchestrated by Eugene Goossens, this hokey version has trombones, triangles, piccolos and harps, but it also has Conviction. Beecham may take the slow sections very, very slowly, but his “Hallelujah Chorus” certainly starts out fast enough and ends with a great accelerando.  In his BMInt interview [here], Pearlman acknowledges liking this take.

So here’s my “take-away” from the evening. Boston Baroque has been presenting Messiah, with much of the same orchestral personnel for thirty years. According to various accounts, the production has really not evolved much over the years, and to some it has remained fleet and virtuosic, but only intermittently engaged. Martin Pearlman is an undoubted musical intellectual, but to my ears, less of a musical dramatist. I believe that Messiah should transcend any single historical model to serve as a dramatic and emotional conduit for its lofty text. Yet mine is a voice that crieth in the wilderness.  The sell-out crowd obviously found their ideal Messiah.  I’m still waiting for mine.

N. B. I’m delighted to offer a partial recantation. Not every Boston ‘Messiah’ is presented in a “take away” version. The recent Handel and Haydn Society performance conducted by Harry Christophers in Symphony Hall, which I heard online,  had the qualities I missed from BB: emotion, drama, variety and surprise. WGBH is streaming that complete performance here.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for a brilliant and perceptive review and, I might add, brilliantly written. It might seem like you are a voice crying out in the wilderness, but I assure you that there are people out there who hear you, share your frustrations, and agree completely. Whether you use one on a part or a cast of thousands, whether you play in supposedly “historical style” (whatever that is), or one based on techno-pop, the goals should always be the same: drama, power, and expression. If they are missing in a performance, than that performance has failed. This is what Handel is all about. This is what music is all about.

    Comment by E.R.Staunt — December 10, 2012 at 10:07 pm

  2. >> Thirty years ago Boston Baroque (and later others) began presenting Messiahs with all of the romantic accretions taken away — but unfortunately the drama and expression were also sometimes shorn, as well as accuracy of tuning and instrumental dependability.

    Whoa, whoa, this may be ‘brilliant and perceptive’ but is pretty historically uninformed, sounding like BB PR. Well over 30 years ago I was a Handel & Haydn governor (= board member, proposed by my mentor the Globe’s Michael Steinberg, while also a working music reviewer). Under Tommy Dunn and others, that august group was doing altogether historically informed and Romantically stripped performances of ‘Messiah’ and other works — and had been for well over a decade. A long tradition, with plenty of drama and expression and dependably in tune. One ‘Messiah’ performance recorded for Advent (cassettes) was quite well-received and remains competitive today, although practically impossible to find. Dunn did many, many such. Pearlman and Banchetto were felt, certainly then and probably a tiny bit still, to be self-promoting upstart come-latelys, compared with their many distinguished predecessors.

    Comment by David Moran — December 11, 2012 at 1:19 am

  3. I agree with Mr. Moran about Tommy Dunn. I had the pleasure of playing under his baton many times, and to my mind Tom had it all: great musicianship, a complete knowledge of performance practices that he had been using since the 1950s, and a real stick technique (i.e., he knew how to conduct) that allowed him to produce performances that were–well–dramatic and expressive and historically informed. But please, can we finally give up on this bogey man of “romantic accretions,” those things supposedly done by well-meaning but misinformed musicians of the 19th and early 20th centuries that need to be fixed or removed. This might be a good marketing device but it is simply not true. Long before “authentic” performance was supposedly discovered along with white wine in the 1960s, there were as many different approaches to performing the music of Bach, Handel and other Baroque composers as there were performers. These include Joah Bates, Fétis, Zelter, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Joachim, Clara Schumann, Brahms, Ernest Pauer, Louise Farrenc, Saint-Saens, Dolmetsch, Toscanini, Kirkpatrick, and many more. Some used an approach just like one hears today, in terms of the size of instrumental ensemble and chorus and other stylistic issues. Others took a more, shall we say, expansive approach. But they all had a shared goal, which is worth repeating: to give an expressive, dramatic and powerful performance of dramatic and expressive music. THAT is what “honoring the composer’s intentions” really means.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — December 11, 2012 at 8:30 am

  4. And I meant no offense to H and H…Tom Dunn’s performance in 1965 with a chorus of at least 100, a large symphony orchestra and Symphony Hall’s Aeolian-Skinner was my previous live exposure to a complete version of the oratorio. I remember it as visceral music making. I also remember Tom as a good colleague. He was happy to support others’ performances, and gladly lent me scores for a Rossini’s Petite Messe Sollenelle which I produced at Sanders Theater a few years later. He asked, “Would 150 copies be enough?” “Yes, by a factor of 10,” I answered, since I was mounting the “original version” with 13 singers and two pianos rather than the orchestral version with large chorus.

    Regarding the word “accretions”, yes, I was alluding, perhaps too obliquely, to Martin Pearlman’s use of the expression in his Intelligencer interview.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 11, 2012 at 10:18 am

  5. Dear Lee,
    I certainly didn’t intend to imply that you said anything offensive about Tom Dunn and his H&H performances–because you didn’t. It was also clear that the word “accretions” was not yours. As I discussed in my first message of this chain, this claim has been used far too often by far too many people who should know better, and probably do. It is, moreover, a real disservice to the public, since it promulgates a complete misunderstanding about where and when the “early music revival” really started, and why.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — December 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm

  6. Thomas Dunn didn’t arrive in Boston until 1967, and his first “Messiah” with Handel & Haydn was in December of that year. In that performance, he used Mozart’s version of Handel’s work (then newly published in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) and a chorus of around 80. In all the subsequent performances, he used a smaller chorus (starting with 40 and ending up with about 24 singers). So if Lee Eiseman heard a Handel & Haydn performance in 1965, it was with Tom Dunn’s predecessor, Edward Gilday–and he was doing large-scale, ponderous performances using Ebenezer Prout’s expansion of Mozart’s orchestration.

    By the time Martin Pearlman began performing “Messiah” with Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque) in 1981, Thomas Dunn had already established a local tradition of historically-informed performances, and I’m sorry that Boston Baroque’s program notes continue to suggest that they were the first to bring smaller forces and period performance practice to this work. Tom Dunn actually did several things from Handel’s own practice that neither Boston Baroque nor today’s Handel & Haydn have followed: (1) having the soloists sing as part of the chorus; (2) following the composer’s indication to use both small “concertino” and larger “ripieno” string sections; and (3) using several bassoons and a contrabassoon to color the sound of the orchestra. And he attempted to re-create a specific Handel performance of the work each season–Handel adapted “Messiah” to the available forces, and created different arias and choruses, so there’s no one “right” or “final” way to do “Messiah.” Over a number of seasons, we got to hear many of Handel’s alternate movements, like the chorus “Break forth into joy” and the 12:8 “Rejoice greatly,” that are rarely performed.

    I sang in two of Thomas Dunn’s “Messiah” performances (once as a bass and once as a countertenor), and in much other music under his direction. Working with Maestro Dunn was one of the great experiences of my life.

    By the way, Michael Steinberg was substantially responsible for bringing Thomas Dunn to the Handel & Haydn Society. When Steinberg arrived at the Globe in 1964, he gave Edward Gilday’s H&H “Messiah” a legendary pan, which concluded with “… a long, long afternoon that was primarily a disfigurement of a beautiful composition, and … a demonstration that by temperament, scholarship, musicianship, and technique, Dr. Gilday is not qualified to conduct Handel’s ‘Messiah.'” (The review can be found on the Boston Globe’s archive website.) The board of the Handel & Haydn Society asked Michael Steinberg to recommend a new Music Director, and he pointed them at Thomas Dunn.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — December 12, 2012 at 12:51 am

  7. Thanks, Steve, you must be right about who conducted the H and H I heard in 1965.

    Do you think Boston Baroque was the first to present Messiah in Boston in modern times with historical instruments? What do you know about how H and H presented it in 1818?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 12, 2012 at 9:04 am

  8. A singer in the recent H and H performance at Symphony Hall just sent me a link to the WGBH stream thereof.

    Here’s how I replied to him:

    What I’ve heard so far is very much much more to my liking. Your description that it is dramatic, full of life, with a great dynamic range and committed seems very apt. I would add, it had the essential quality of being unpredictable. Whether it made as much of an impact in Symphony Hall as in the recording is my only question.

    The soloists were fine. The chorus and orchestra were excellent. And comparing the Pastoral Symphony as performed by H and H to the Spastical Symphony by BB was alone enough to summarize the differences in approach. Christophers and H and H know what they’re doing with the piece.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

  9. The H&H history, as published in 1890, lists their members and the date they joined.
    By December 25th, 1818, (the date of the first complete Messiah)
    there were 200 members listed, but it does not give the dates they
    departed, only the reason. Of those 200 members (all male) 80 were members until their death.
    Consider that a minimum, then.
    There is some detail of the forces for a concert in 1817.
    There is also a diagram showing their deployment in concert–
    basses on the right, sopranos (male and female) in the center, male altos on the left in front
    of the tenors. Behind the sopranos and in front of the organ is the orchestra.
    The orchestra is listed with 13 members: 7 strings (Mr. Graupner playing bass), 4 winds, 2 horns.
    The chorus was 150, including 20 female sopranos.
    John Sullivan Dwight, who wrote the history beginning in 1851, maintained that the Mozart version
    had always been used for Messiah, at least through the Civil War.

    Comment by Brian Bell — December 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm

  10. “Tom Dunn actually did several things from Handel’s own practice…. (1) having the soloists sing as part of the chorus”

    Actually, I am very glad to be reminded of this, and of Tom’s positive influence. Around that same time, early to mid 70’s, a Boston early music group was employing both a solo quartet and a chamber choir. The soloists petitioned the board of directors for permission NOT to sing with the choir. Times have changed and that kind of quarrel would be hard to imagine in today’s pre-baroque performance world. But I guess that baroque music, closer as it is to ideas of what “classical” music is supposed to sound like, may have more trouble getting rid of old habits.

    And what will people in 2032 say about our “historically informed” recordings? Happy holidays!

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm

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