in: Reviews

December 1, 2015

Messiah in Tempore Belli


>Mezzo-soprano Emily Marvosh

Mezzo-soprano Emily Marvosh

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.

Sophie Bevan (as Pamino)

Sophie Bevan (as Pamina)

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.

Covent Garden Theatre showing Handel's large organ in 1743.

Covent Garden Theatre showing Handel’s large organ in 1743

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.

Ed. Note: Illustrative image added.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


  1. The Symphony Hall organ is built and tuned to a different pitch standard than period-instrument groups like H&H play at. The difference is about a half-step, far beyond the tuning range of organ pipes, and even if retuning the Aeolian-Skinner organ were conceivable, it would be outrageously expensive. (Perhaps the organist could play in D-flat, but it still wouldn’t be quite right.) I didn’t hear any lack of power in the two portative organs employed by H&H in Messiah. Remember that Handel wrote this—and all his oratorios—for performance in a theatre, not a church, so a big organ would not have been available to him even if he wanted one.

    As for standing during “Hallelujah,” the program book contained an essay which basically left the decision up to each member of the audience. At least people stood fairly quietly, and attempts in prior H&H eras to discourage standing made for more noise and distraction as people of both persuasions turned and muttered to reproach the others. From my seat in the first balcony, the standees made no difference in the sound; perhaps on the floor you might have heard a bit of dulling (if you didn’t stand) due to absorbed side-reflections. Singing along is not appropriate, in my opinion.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — December 1, 2015 at 2:58 pm

  2. Seems like the Aeolian Skinner would fit in just fine if played a half step low. No re-tuning would be necessary–just transposition of the part. And Messiah was certainly played in rooms with organs during Handel’s lifetime.The Foundling Hospital was thus equipped, as was Covent Garden.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 1, 2015 at 3:26 pm

  3. WHY are they standing? As seen from the balcony, last Sunday, the audience in the orchestra rose almost as one. Also noted: after the chorus, some of the standees then left (but I don’t think that is why they stood).

    Comment by LoisL — December 2, 2015 at 9:36 am

  4. Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus is a tradition, supposedly going back to King George II. The story, as I recall, is that he was attending a performance of Messiah and as the chorus began, he rose to his feet. Etiquette required that when the king stood, others may not sit, so the entire audience rose. And we’re still doing it.

    In my opinion, it’s good to maintain traditions when possible, if they aren’t truly harmful. Beyond that, I think the chorus itself, both in the words and in the music, is so outstanding, that the gesture of respect is entirely appropriate. There may be other numbers in Messiah and elsewhere in music which are similarly meritorious, but the tradition has attached to Hallelujah.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm

  5. Some presenters encourage the audience to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. Maybe H+H could offer that possibility in on of their three shows each season. If people are standing anyway…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 2, 2015 at 3:15 pm

  6. “Seems like the Aeolian Skinner would fit in just fine if played a half step low. No re-tuning would be necessary–just transposition of the part.”

    Maybe, maybe not.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 3, 2015 at 5:38 am

  7. Harry Christophers has invited the audience to sing along when “Hallelujah” is excerpted on programs, including the recent King’s Chapel Bicentennial Concert and the Baroque Fireworks! program at Symphony Hall last year.

    There will also be a kid-friendly “Hallelujah” sing along at the Dec. 12 Holiday Sing program at Faneuil Hall.

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — December 3, 2015 at 10:56 am

  8. Please educate me here. In 2003-04 Foley-Baker did a major renovation of the Aeolian-Skinner organ, as Aeolian-Skinner did a major renovation in 1949 of the original George Hutchings organ of 1900.
    Isn’t it a “Foley-Baker” organ today? How much of a renovation needs to take place before we rename the instrument?

    Comment by Brian Bell — December 3, 2015 at 11:16 am

  9. Matthew Guerrieri wrote an article for the Globe a few years ago cataloguing the historical references to “standing” during the Hallelujah and other Handel choruses:

    Comment by Laura Prichard — December 3, 2015 at 1:12 pm

  10. A number of assumptions have been made, and suggestions offered regarding the use of Symphony Hall organ played down a half-step with H and H.
    1 The assumption that the organ is going to be at exactly A440 – it isn’t
    2 The assumption that even if the pitches matched, that an equal temperament instrument will align with tempered pitch – it won’t

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 4, 2015 at 9:13 am

  11. If the Aeolian Skinner is tuned to A=442, a half-note transposition would bring it down to 417 (instead of the conventional Baroque pitch of 415. That is not a significant difference for tuning
    the harpsichord and other instruments.

    And regarding the difference between well temperament and equal temperament- that would really only be noticeable in enharmonic keys- which I don’t recall existing in Messiah.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 4, 2015 at 10:24 am

  12. I don’t understand the enharmonic angle, as the point of equal temperament is to spread the out of tuneness over the whole compass, whereas the the point of a temperament is to load the out of tuneness onto certain keys, usually, but not always avoided by baroque composers. With a few exceptions, Messiah is composed in primary keys. Whether a tuning discrepancy is noticeable or not is obviously subjective. To me it is. I also believe that the Symphony Hall organ fluctuates in pitch from day to day.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 4, 2015 at 11:26 am

  13. The reason many portative organs have transposing keyboards is to allow them to be used at Baroque or modern pitch. Typically one removes either the right or left endblock to slide the keyboard one way or the other.

    Equal temperament has equal out-of-tuneness in all the keys. Early temperaments leave some keys with more wolf intervals than others. The differences are much more obvious in the distant keys. NEC once hosted a temperament recital with a several instruments on the stage- one in equal temperament, another in mean tone, another in Kirnberber comma six, etc. The takeaway was that black key Chopin sounded painful in mean tone and Scarlatti worked in every system.

    All instruments fluctuate from day to day….

    My point was really that Handel liked big organs and that he did not know the little suitcase systems that early music groups now employ.

    I think this suggestion is worth a try.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 4, 2015 at 12:48 pm

  14. Not true that Handel favored big organs – the first performance took place in a theater where there was no organ. Your points regarding temperament reinforced mine! The more distant the key, the greater the grate. Messiah has choruses, arias and recitatives in keys which are generally unfriendly in most historical temperaments eg E flat major, A flat major, E major, (chords of B major C# major F# major) Tuning is a question of degree and personal taste in the end probably.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — December 4, 2015 at 5:45 pm

  15. Granted about taste…but you seem to be arguing for equal temperament in Messiah!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 4, 2015 at 11:41 pm

  16. A few brief observations about organs and temperament, from one who admittedly did not hear H & H’s Messiah this year (and has not heard the Aeolian-Skinner-Foley-Baker instrument at Symphony for some time).

    First, whatever Handel’s thoughts about the ideal size of a church organ (and he did grow up in the land of great organs), MOST of his oratorios were first performed in theaters that were equipped, at most, with a relatively small organ, or a harpsichord-organ combo.

    Second, preferences with regard to pitch and temperament (tuning system) were very much in transition during Handel’s lifetime. There was never any such thing as “Baroque” pitch, which is a necessary modern invention. But practices that Handel had grown up with were evolving. Large organs, however, were and are expensive to tune. Many were left in archaic tunings that rendered most of their stops or pipes useless for playing up-to-date music, including Handel’s, which calls for keys and chords that were avoided in older compositions.

    Therefore the organs that he used for public concerts must have been tuned in something resembling equal temperament. There is no evidence that anyone in Handel’s day wanted so-called remote keys to “grate.” Rather, the palette of keys in use was expanding because remote keys could create striking effects, including unusual colors on the wind and string instruments then in use (as in the F-minor chorus “Surely” in Messiah or the aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herz” in the same key from Bach’s St. John Passion).

    Most important, however, is the question of how organ tuning related to that of the singers and orchestra. Voices, strings, and wind instruments don’t use temperaments in the same way that keyboards, with their fixed pitches, do. This is not a big issue for a harpsichordist accompanying a Handel oratorio, but it could be problematical if one is using a large organ. That’s because organs sustain their tones, whereas those of a harpsichord die away quickly. Even a minuscule difference in pitch can create annoying “beats,” as they are called, if, for instance, a flute and an organ attempt to sustain the same note tuned slightly differently. For this reason, organists need to play very discreetly when they accompany an orchestra of period instruments, and a large organ is not necessarily an advantage.

    I’ve suggested previously that it would be interesting for H & H to attempt a reproduction of a 19th-century “Romantic” Messiah. Surely then the Symphony organ might be permitted to blast away (or would it?). But it would also be interesting to hear a serious effort to reproduce one of Handel’s own Messiah performances, reflecting changes in instrument making, historical knowledge, and interpretive ideas that have occurred since Hogwood first tried to replicate Handel’s “Foundling Hospital” concert some thirty years ago. Whether anyone would “like” either type of performance is of course a matter of personal taste.

    Comment by David Schulenberg — December 5, 2015 at 11:19 am

  17. Thank you for your contribution to this fascinating discussion Professor Schulenberg. Very informative and helpful!

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — December 5, 2015 at 2:19 pm

  18. I, of course, long to hear the Goossens/Beecham version performed by the BSO at Easter time. Fifty years after the two widows jousted in chancery, the parts are available again.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 5, 2015 at 6:17 pm

  19. It might be fun, I concur, to hear the riper of Romantic re-creations of Messiah and similar, at least for a little while. But I recently acquired and reauditioned a copy of the Thomas Dunn Haha Messiah Advent recording from the later 1970s, and while certainly eye- and ear-opening at the time (I was a governor; the HIP approach was why the outfit had hired Dunn a decade earlier), today it sounds kinda flat and dull, to put it nicely, at least to my taste.
    So sometimes it’s not so much that performances don’t stand up as that expectations, experience, custom, acclimation and even tolerance all change and develop profoundly. As Jeremy Eichler reported a while back, “For one performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion in 1871, the [HaHa] amateur chorus swelled to 700 singers. But in 1965 a single brutal review [unavailable in the Globe archives, alas] forced a major rethinking of the ensemble’s direction. Boston Globe critic Michael Steinberg slammed the then H&H music director [Edward Gilday, I think]’s pacing and neglect of Handel’s intention.” So misty notions of revisiting might not really pan out.
    It is, yes, an Easter piece, or was, and that tradition would be good to restore.

    Comment by David Moran — December 6, 2015 at 1:18 am

  20. It turns out the mid-1960s’ Steinberg ‘Messiah’ reviews are in the Globe archives, and I will try to post details of how to get to them. Extraordinary work, such scholarship, such frankness and strictness, really extraordinary things to put into print. (Two of them are surely the sort of thing Steinberg had in mind when writing 40 years later that he wished he hadn’t been so harsh at times.) “Since 1741, some devastating things have happened to ‘Messiah’, and one of them certainly was the performance in Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon … even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the Handel-Mozart-Prout-Gilday ‘Messiah’ as a legitimate work of art, it must still be said that Dr Gilday conducted it quite amazingly badly.” Etc. Those were the days.

    Comment by David Moran — December 7, 2015 at 12:17 am

  21. Lee Eisemann wrote, “If the Aeolian Skinner is tuned to A=442, a half-note transposition would bring it down to 417 (instead of the conventional Baroque pitch of 415).”

    A bit more accurately, a half-step below 442hz in equal temperament is 417.2hz, and a half-step below 440hz in equal temperament is 415.3hz. (By contrast in one version of 1/4 comma meantone, a half-step below 442hz is 413.1hz, and a half-step below 440hz is 411.2hz.)

    Regardless of “modern” or “baroque,” we must keep the double reed players happy. They’re the ones who carry knives in their cases.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — December 8, 2015 at 10:58 am

  22. Some day I will take in another Messiah, a piece I have heard and sung often enough to effectively have it memorized and capable of being replayed in my head; I used to get to hear an annual free “dress rehearsal” as a part of the group’s having the rehearsal space. As a teenager I do remember the receipt of Steinberg’s Monday morning Glob review in our house; my father sang with H&H then and was in the TV performance that WGBH used to run annually before it became PBS. “Deafening Silence”? (No) “Choleric Explosion?” (Maybe). It was noticed; the paper almost was handed to me with tongs and an admonition to wear safety gloves and sit while reading. Then Steinberg took on other Sacred Cows and Cods (is that still there in the statehouse?) in his “career” until he became Old Hat and moved/got kicked out to greener pastures. O for musical criticism like that again! In those days the fact the the BSO was doing a Mahler symphony with a 36-minute opening movement and there would be no seating until it was over was announced on regular radio programs (well, “Roy Jim & Gus” on WNAC 680 AM) Tommy Dunn was brought in and did some interesting programming (Haydn’s Il Ritorno di Tobia and Seven Words orchestral version) in later years–his Messiah always featured in the last rest before the final phrase a big stomp before bringing the chorus in. Then I drifted away and he got kicked out and when I came back to H&H in 1992 they had changed (not in the twinkling of an eye!) to the “you’re the best-trained 18th century audience in Boston” (groan). Which brings up the changing fashion in the Historical Performance “industry” as the comments have covered. H&H did go out from the “old” Messiah with a bang by doing the Mozart version of 1789 for their final big one in 1967. Dunn I remember was going to do a cycle of every known Messiah version; one year I remember the disappointment in the lack of certain popular numbers that Handel later added to the original. (As for the problem of critical editions: I had picked up a free copy of Coopersmith’s edition which was practically the earliest “historically informed” one–and which turned out to be highly idiosyncratic with things no one else caught and which gave me trouble and loathing at sightreadings for years (“and with his stripes are we healed” etc.).) Thankfully we have no recordings from Handel’s day so we don’t know if the sung sound was actually different then–think of the Shape Note people and their “open throats” which may be in the John Blow/West Gallery/etc. popular music traditions. Meantime the HIP business has moved on to Broadway (Glimmerglass recreated the “Carousel” of 1945) and maybe even Elvis impersonation (Early Elvis vs. Vegas Elvis).

    Lastly, a warning about “honesty” in the HIP business. Back in 1983 I went to the BEMF’s “Zoastre” (Rameau) with a view to watch the brass instruments change crooks among other things. They didn’t. At intermission I went down to talk to the horn players and they showed me their holes in the bores and claimed the holes were “authentic 18th century”. Balderdash! (this is a family and not a farm journal.) If there had been holes in horns then the orchestration would’ve been quite different. Yes, the horn was a work of art, finely painted, a real work of art–but was it authentic or something akin to a modern Hollywood invention for musical half-wits.

    Thank you for the review–it was almost like being there. The comments above brought in memories of Messiahs and HIP over the years. Organs in concert halls DO give problems; the legendary occasion of the London Philharmonic of A=454 fame on tour with the Saint-saens Organ Symphony: the organ came in almost a semi-tone flat in a situation no one could fail to notice. It’d be neat if that “tuning competition” concert were done again–I’d go to hear the Chopin Black Key in Mean Tone.

    Comment by NathanRedshield — December 8, 2015 at 8:59 pm

  23. Mr. Redshield’s comment (no. 22) gets my nomination for “Comment of the Year”.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — December 9, 2015 at 9:08 pm

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