in: Reviews

November 30, 2013

Polished Albeit Risk-Free Messiah

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The Handel and Haydn Society presented Handel’s Messiah last night at Symphony Hall, marking its 160th annual offerings of the famous oratorio. Harry Christophers led the Society’s chorus and period orchestra, joined by soprano Gillian Keith, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Tom Randle, and baritone Sumner Thompson.

When an organization has been performing a work, or portions of it, since 1815, there is naturally a certain element of institutionalization in what they do. But Messiah, like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker—to name the other seasonal favorite for this time of year—has become such a global phenomenon that it is hardly identifiable with any one performer or group. Its performance can be a mere exercise in recreation or nostalgia, or—like the once-ubiquitous Messiah sing-ins—primarily a social event, a form of participatory entertainment. The latter is, in fact, what Messiah once represented for H & H, which originated at a time when music-making by mixed amateurs and professionals was an approved thrill for the upper classes, a recent import to America from London and other European cities. London, Berlin, and Vienna all have choral societies of a comparable nature, still performing Messiah on a regular basis just as H & H does.

I was particularly interested in seeing and hearing what new things Christophers and H & H might have to offer present-day listeners of Messiah. Whether one can, or should, attempt anything original with the work is an open question, given its iconic status. Yet 30 or 40 years ago, when period-instrument performances of Messiah began to be heard, these proved revelatory for many listeners, especially of sounds that purported to be those that Handel himself, and his first audiences, had heard when he was directing charitable performances at London in the 1740s and 1750s. More significantly, the use of valveless trumpets, gut rather than metal-wound strings, and concomitant playing practices led to new interpretations. This was especially true when the period instruments were joined with period vocal forces: a smaller chorus than had become customary, and soloists who had some awareness of Baroque approaches to ornamentation and articulation.

We have now, of course, reached a point where H & H’s chorus of just 30 professional singers and a somewhat smaller number of players has become a new norm. The four soloists include a countertenor, that is, an adult male falsetto singer. The notes that are sung and played are largely those that Handel actually wrote, shorn of the extra orchestral parts, including horns and clarinets that were being added even in the late 18th century by Mozart and others leading performances of the already venerated yet invariably updated work.

In fact Handel did not write most of the solo alto numbers for falsetto singers. At least some of his own performances may have used an expanded orchestra that included horns and perhaps flutes or recorders. There was no conductor in the modern sense; players and singers alike relied on aural as well as visual cues to keep together, responding to one another more like modern chamber musicians than orchestral players. The soloists sang as members of the chorus, stepping forward when their times came, and although Handel himself may sometimes have played on a contraption that combined elements of a harpsichord and an organ, no keyboard player was ever asked to jump constantly from one instrument to another (thereby depriving us of the basso continuo at the junctures between certain movements). Handel’s singers may not always have performed with unfailing taste, but they would have added trills and other essential ornaments, as well as cadenzas, according to the conventions of the time and as presupposed by the composer himself. Handel and his listeners would surely have frowned at singers’ sudden rocketing into the stratosphere, especially at the ends of arias; this was recognized years ago for the distracting “look-at-me” gesture that it is, but it seems now to be coming back into vogue.

So what we heard last night was a distinctly modern type of performance—and one, I hasten to add, that was by almost anyone’s standards more satisfying musically than what might have been heard forty or fifty years ago, in Boston or anywhere else. The chorus was superb, executing the demanding final fugues on “Blessing and honour” and “Amen” with the same crispness and clarity as their initial “And the glory.” The orchestra was equally alert, with only a few insignificant imprecisions marring more than two hours’ worth of vivid playing.

Among the high points for this listener was the excellent work by the choral tenors in “For unto us,” especially at the hard-to-enunciate phrase “and the government,” and by both sopranos and tenors in “All we like sheep,” notably on the difficult turns at “we have turn-èd” Christophers likes to shape choral numbers through a combination of articulation and dynamics, and at times this runs the risk of becoming obtrusive: in the choral fugue “And with his stripes we are healed” the first four words were punched out, the last three sung gently and smoothly. To these ears the result was almost a caricature of Baroque musical rhetoric, but the chorus executed this ably throughout the many repetitions of the subject. In “Glory to God,” Handel’s word painting on the line “and peace on earth” can sound banal, but the quiet low unisons for the tenors and basses were executed with the gentlest of ritards, making the phrase genuinely expressive.

Of the soloists, I most enjoyed soprano Keith’s often exquisite voice and her fluent accuracy when singing the coloratura that Handel actually wrote for her. Countertenor Taylor sang perhaps as effectively as one can in arias that lie awkwardly low for a falsetto singer; one could share his ebullience on the few original high notes that allowed his voice to shine, but the fact that one can sing a trill on a high E does not mean that it is beautiful or expressive to add one at the end of “Thou art gone up on high.” I confess that I did not care for the many varying vocal colors that Randle brought to the tenor solos, often within a single phrase, although these were certainly sung with conviction. Baritone Thompson likewise projected a forceful persona, yet the coloratura roulades in “Why do the nations rage?” sounded to these ears less clearly than those of the choral basses in the answering “Let us break their bonds.”

To judge from the choice of soloists, Christophers likes full-blooded singing, with plenty of vibrato—rather different from the more austere voices that characterized especially English early-music performance in past decades. Although not exactly a modern “romantic” or operatic sound, this approach to the vocal solos goes hand in hand with Christophers’s dynamic shaping of many of the larger numbers. This last was evident right from the start, when the first phrase of the overture was repeated softly, an effective but probably anachronistic touch. The real problem with such an approach, for this listener, lies not in its unhistorical character but in the fact that it can seem imposed arbitrarily over Handel’s often complex polyphony. Messiah is actually unusual within the composer’s output for what is, on the whole, a relatively simple texture. The latter is famously evident in the choruses that he adapted from previously composed Italian duets. But even in those, such as “For unto us a child is born,” I missed the type of attention that the singers and players of H & H—every one of them a capable soloist—might give to details such as the expressive appoggiatura on the word “born,” were they not subject to a conductor’s overarching dynamic design.

I wonder, too, what would happen to the pacing of the work if its division into three “parts,” as they are called, could be respected. I understand that neither a modern audience nor a presenter has the patience, or the money, for a Messiah with two intermissions, like a three-act opera. Yet setting off the opening “Christmas” portion of the work—really more an “Advent” portion, focusing on prophecies from the Hebrew Bible—from the other two rather distorts the point of Jennens’s text, which proceeds to sections focusing on sin and then on redemption. Even executed as well as they were last night, the two latter sections invariably grow a bit wearying when performed without a break (a brief pause for applause after “Hallelujah” is hardly sufficient). The last two parts are not helped by the presence of a few numbers that are distinctly less imaginative than others, notably the final soprano solo “If God be for us.” There is a reason why this aria is almost never heard in holiday sing-ins or on single-CD Reader’s-Digest versions of the work.

It is probably pointless to speculate whether such a number would seem more interesting in the hands of musicians freshened by a second intermission, or to an audience enlivened by a second opportunity for refreshments. But doing so does raise the question of whether early performances, perhaps proceeding at a more leisurely pace, might have drawn more out of the details of certain numbers. I wonder, too, whether it is not time for creative directors and presenters to think about rethinking works such as Messiah, as they were rethought three or four decades ago as the “historical performance” approach began to take hold. We’ve already had creative re-enactments of Mozart’s version, using “Classical” rather than “Baroque” instruments. What, however, did H & H’s 1876 performance, using Robert Franz’s “improvement” of the Mozart version, sound like? A real Romantic-era sort of performance, still with an orchestra of gut strings and wood woodwinds, but with a chorus of hundreds and Rossini-esque vocal embellishments, would be an interesting experiment, at the very least. Or, if that seems too over the top (not to mention hopelessly impractical), how about replicating that 1817 performance of the “Hallelujah” chorus for President Monroe and “many civic and military characters of distinction,” as described in H & H’s press kit thoughtfully provided to this reviewer?

Of course we look for more in Messiah than from the re-staging of a historical event. What we heard last night was a very vital, generally very polished modern interpretation. The nearly full house enjoyed it, and the 90% or so who chose to take a seventh-inning stretch during the “Hallelujah” chorus clearly relished the opportunity to participate in that little bit of historical re-enactment (even if George III probably did not, in fact, ever stand at that point in a performance, as duly noted in Teresa Neff’s program notes). I don’t think that it would be risking this level of audience support if, at some future date, some director of H & H were to take some real artistic risks with Handel’s work.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

6 Comments

  1. “no keyboard player was ever asked to jump constantly from one instrument to another (thereby depriving us of the basso continuo at the junctures between certain movements)”. Nor was it in this performance – there were two keyboard players.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — November 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm

  2. Reader Philip Johnson comments that there were two keyboard players in this performance. Two were certainly listed in the program book, but from my seat, way on the left side of the orchestra, I couldn’t see either player except when Ian Watson seemed to be getting up and walking from the harpsichord to the organ, or back. I didn’t think I ever heard both instruments at the same time, but with both being played quite discreetly, most of the time, it’s possible that I’m mistaken. Can anyone shed light on this?

    Comment by David Schulenberg — December 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  3. True, there were two keyboard players, but one of them, Ian Watson, doubled on harpsichord and positiv.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 1, 2013 at 4:10 pm

  4. And I can’t resist adding that Christophers got a fine performance out of the orchestra, and the chorus was just amazing- they should have taken all of the solo parts as well as their own- though the tenor was fine and dramatic. Overall: transparent, dramatic, shapely though rather well-mannered

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 1, 2013 at 7:52 pm

  5. What did the second keyboard player play?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 1, 2013 at 9:07 pm

  6. The other keyboardist, Justin Blackwell, sat at another portative organ. Thus at certain times two organs were in play.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 1, 2013 at 9:11 pm

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