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.