Handel’s Messiah, performed to a full house by Boston Baroque at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday evening, December 13 and repeated on Saturday evening, December 14 (the Friday performance is reviewed here), is both a “fine Entertainment,” in the words of librettist Charles Jennens and, for generations, an annual ritual of year-end celebration. Based primarily on prophetical writings from the Old Testament framed by excerpts from the Gospels and the Book of Revelation, all cannily assembled by Jennens from some of the most rhetorically effective passages in the King James Bible, it incorporates weighty choruses, sprightly fugues, angel choirs, dramatic recitatives, vengeful arias, and re-purposed Italian love duets into a coherent succession of scenes, a meditation on the birth, suffering, and resurrection of Christ whose appeal extends well beyond its original Christian message.
Now in their fortieth season, Boston Baroque and music director Martin Pearlman presented the first Boston complete Messiah with a period-instrument ensemble in 1981. In his introductory program notes, Pearlman wrote that after all these years of performing Messiah he is still discovering new details. He stressed the importance not only of dance rhythms in establishing the tempo and character of each piece, but also of speech patterns of the text in determining both rhythm and dynamics. The twenty-one professional singers of Boston Baroque’s chorus seemed united in pursuit of this goal: singing with pure, unforced tone and precise diction, their articulation clearly reflected Pearlman’s preference for detailed phrasing rather than sweeping musical gestures. Although in some instances—“All we like sheep” and the bass air “The people that walked in darkness,” for example—exaggerated articulation of pairs of eighth notes delivered words with barely audible final syllables, on the whole this approach resulted in lively and often dramatic delivery of the texts.
Pearlman led the recitatives and airs from a single-manual harpsichord placed center stage, standing to direct the choral pieces and ceding the keyboard continuo to a chamber organ played by Peter Sykes. The seventeen-member string ensemble, reinforced in choral numbers by two oboists, was ably led by violinist Christina Day Martinson. Throughout, a sense of musical and emotional energy spanned the entire evening and lent continuity to a basically contemplative sequence with occasional dramatic outbursts. These ranged from the chordal interjections in “For unto us a Child is born” (“Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God”) to the five-part choral dialogue “Life up your heads” with its percussive dotted rhythms. Choral fugues were quick but never frantic, the light-tongued ensemble singers and period instrument players ably handling virtuosic roulades (some of them adapted from duets) that can sound labored when performed by a larger group. Part I opened with a sequence of prophetic sayings in four groupings of Recitative, Air, and Chorus. The narrative scene that followed began with the Pifa or Pastoral Symphony, a lilting siciliano in imitation of rustic shepherd music, with drone effects imitating bagpipes in the cellos, violone, and organ. Led by the soprano narrator, the angel chorus took over with a joyful conclusion. Introducing the following section, the soprano air “Rejoice greatly” was taken at a fast clip that easily accommodated its paired eighth notes but was almost too fast for the sixteenth-note roulades; soprano Kiera Duffy tossed them off, however, with virtuosic aplomb. The air for alto and soprano “He shall feed His flock” recalled the music of the Pifa with its siciliano meter and held bass notes.
Duffy and Kate Lindsey, the mezzo-soprano soloist, were beautifully matched in this air, both singing with clear straight tone and precise articulation. In arias containing significant low notes, however, Lindsey seemed to be out of her comfortable range. This was particularly apparent in “He was despised,” where cadences at the bottom of a descending scale tended to disappear. In arias within a more suitable range (“O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”), Lindsey’s bright tone and secure musicianship shone. Tenor Nicholas Phan set the tone, so to speak, with the resoundingly rhetorical delivery of his opening recitative (“Comfort ye my people”) and air (“Every valley shall be exalted”). His ringing voice was particularly effective in dramatic accompanied recitative (“All they that see him”) and his air “Thou shalt break them” had the force of an operatic vengeance aria. Baritone Jesse Blumberg entered the scene in the prophetic voice of the Old Testament God in a dramatic accompanied recitative (“Thus saith the Lord”). Blumberg’s final aria “The trumpet shall sound”, to text from Corinthians celebrating the triumph of life over death, is of course one of the most stirring pieces in the oratorio. Robinson Pyle’s natural trumpet introduced a virtuosic dialogue in which Blumberg, after a slightly tentative beginning, was fully his equal. All in all, this was an unhackneyed, musically convincing, and thoroughly enjoyable rendition of Messiah by an ensemble of first-rate players and singers.