A deeply involved solo quartet of singer-actor-storytellers, together with a committed virtuoso chorus, joined a dependably attentive historically informed band to pay heed to their emotionally invested conductor whose theatrical understanding they brilliantly imparted. Over the weekend, Handel and Haydn’s Messiah under Harry Christophers prompted us, during these terribly fraught times, to ask, “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?”
Despite the dutifully drawn-out tuning, it became instantly clear in the opening of the Sinfony that no timekeeping Martinette had taken charge. Phrasing and smoothly differentiated dynamics gave early and accurate promise of the joys, terrors, and pleasures to come. Fleet but never rushed, clear but never perfunctory, attentive to text always: these were the watchwords at the company’s 200th anniversary installment of the oratorio.
As the Sinfony concluded in a gracefully rising arc, the orchestra gave warm and legato support to tenor James Gilchrist’s invocation to the Lord to comfort His people. Christophers took care to provide just the right inflection to accompany the tenor’s beautifully floated pianissimos. Guy Fishman’s cello leadership of the continuo proved always flexible and sensitive. “Every Valley” danced, and Gilchrist’s rollickingly rolled ‘r’s seemed to elicit something similar in articulation from the players. Ornamentation felt organic; all were tuned to the same longwave band.
“The Mouth of the Lord” was certainly wide open in the entrance of H+H’s 30 select singers. That this is the best small chorus in town would not get any argument from me. Arrangement by sections, instead of hashing, allowed entrances to be tightly cued, and had the added benefit of really tight cohesiveness for each division. In particular, tenor sound seemed to emanate from one large individual, in a mighty clarion call.
Wotanesque Christopher Purves came to this temple with torrents of tone, shaking all nations in the best English oratorio style with none of the peculiarities. He brought total engagement, across two burnished octaves.
“But Who May Abide” glowed with awestruck veneration, and not just because of the anticipation generated by the compelling side story of how a singer with heart was plucked from the chorus like Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street. For her solo debut with H+H, sultry contralto Emily Marvosh emerged more like Lena Horne in Stormy Weather. In singing of her Refiner’s fire, she kindled her own, especially in the repeated verse which melded ornament and consolation most fittingly.
The chorus retuned with Malachi’s not entirely successful suggestion to purify the sons of Levi, even as the singing of the 30 great-great-great-grandchildren of Levi swelled spotlessly. In this section Chrisophers made even more plain his great gifts as a choral man. This righteous offering also made vocalists of the orchestra players. Watching the conductor’s pas de deux with concertmistress Aisslinn Nosky, and his shaping of phrases as if they were glistening clay, one was thankful throughout for his how his attention to detail only enhanced the storytelling.
After terpsichorean good tidings of Zion from the chorus, serious drama returned as Gilchrist cast a spell of darkness upon us in an unbroken legato with power reserved and expressed before impelling the gleaming light of tone and attitude to fructify in the chorus celebrating the birth of the Child. The ensemble sanctified this seamless marriage of drama and music with nary a moment of banal scooping from the vibratoless strings. Every tremolo and inflection served to announce the Coming. Just one example of fresh, telling detail, the words “Wonderful Counselor,” normally more or less shouted, here were “Won…nn…der…full,” almost five syllables just by itself—and this wasn’t precious—it worked.
With our governance on the shoulder of the Son, we could relax into the Pifa, especially, coming as it did, with poetic sway—soft, but sustained with rapture, and protected by the abiding shepherdess for whom we had been waiting through 13 numbers. Soprano Sophie Bevan came unto us with great joy, her countenance witnessing the glory and her great tidings in the company of antiphonal trumpets in the second balcony. In “Rejoice Greatly” she beheld the King, and in the way she heard Him speak of peace, she seemed to be reflecting on today’s battles, consoling at first but rising in confidence to become a Handelian version of the Queen of the Night. Part I ended with the perfect articulated choral passagework in “His Yoke Is Easy”; each tenorial entrance raised the stakes.
The second part of Messiah takes us to spiritually deeper realms. We beheld the Lamb of God cleansing us in moving sotto voce from the chorus before Marvosh recounted the Savior’s rejection. If she did not have the raw power to smite us, she did possess the juice to convey His chastisement in unabashed pathos reminiscent of Kathleen Ferrier.
“Surely He Hath Born Our Grief” seared in the chorus’s mad scene, “He Was Wounded.” The following “All We Like Sheep” took on a lighter tone; despite the rapid-fire coloratura, no chorister went astray.
The tenor then told of how Jesus was la…aa…aau…ghed to scorn. Quite a muchness was made of that single word. In “Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart,” Gilchrist stopped time. The orchestra faded to the ephemeral and Christopher listened and followed. The tenor then took recitatives and arias conventionally assigned to the soprano, after which his “He Was Cut Off” unfortunately failed to banish memories of Jon Vickers. That I even mention this attests to the level of investment and feeling that generally obtained.
Purves raged furiously with as many degrees of heat as did the Nations. The “Kings of the Earth” in the baritone’s peroration rose to a stirring high G, his power and conviction obviating any comparisons with singers of the past.
Most of the audience stood for the Hallelujah chorus, which was a shame, as we were not invited to sing. The standees absorbed the sound before it could go out to all the lands; this was one of but few times when more sound was wanted. Also, why not use the Symphony Hall organ for big moments? And 30 voices just didn’t cut it here.
“Since By Man Came Death” began with a well-supported pianissimo before the chorus nobly crescendoed into a whopper of a Resurrection before dropping back to a hush for the harrowing “for as in Adam, all must die.” Purves’s tale of a “mystery” stood out as actually the most exalted moment of the afternoon, and as generous as he had been up to it, he found tones even grander for his “prize song” with the trumpet. If Jesse Levine’s heraldic tones were something less than incorruptible, he stood and delivered nevertheless.
The contralto-tenor duet for “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” danced a bit much for the sake of the drama, but perhaps that is Handel’s fault. The chorus “Thanks Be to God” summed up the proceedings perhaps better than the more conventional Amen chorus. We would append our thanks to Handel and to H+H and posit it for an encore.
Were I a sacerdotalist, I would choose Bevan as my intercessor. In “If God Be for Us” I could imagine her sitting at His right hand, making the most expressive case in behalf of mankind.
Beginning with pathetic plaints from the two miniature organs, “Worthy Is the Lamb” was another of those tutti moments that lacked punch. By the concluding “Blessing and Honor, Glory and Power,” however, the ensemble had covered itself in all those qualities—again except the last. Still, the Amen chorus pinned the needle in its final reprise. With four operatic soloists joining from the stage apron, power was no longer one of the missing humours. Why not expand the expressive vocabulary and let added force be with you, H+H? Muscle up with the Æolian Skinner next year, double up on the bigger choruses, and invite the audience to sing Hallelujah. That consummate showman Handel would approve.