Recently I was reading a memoir of Jesuit education in which the author describes having been asked by his teacher to identify the most important event in history. He ventured a couple of events from classical and medieval history, but his questioner rejected them; quoting Cardinal Newman, he reminded the student that the Incarnation, the fact of God made man, was “the most stupendous event which ever can take place on earth.” The student was immediately abashed and accepted the correction. The story is notable as a reminder of the immense, even preposterous, world-historical claim made by Christianity. It also shows that even the deeply devout might find it difficult to internalize that fact. This story came to mind while I sat through Boston Baroque’s Messiah Friday. What demands are fair to impose on this event? If the reader views Messiah as a pleasant holiday tradition, something which one simply does along with the gift shopping and the carols, the yearly offering by Boston Baroque becomes a luxury item. As such, I can report that like any high-end product, it remains well-crafted, the soloists polished and the orchestra lithe, and the audience stood up twice, about 2/3 of them during “Hallelujah”, and just about everyone at the conclusion.
If that was all that needed to be said, there would have been no point in having a correspondent at the event. But let us allow that Messiah’s stakes are higher than that, especially as it has become a seasonal fixture, associated with the most-beloved and most conflicted Christian festival. Read in the context of the claim they are making, we encounter the possibility of seeing something especially profound and moving—perhaps even something that brings to life some sense of the “stupendous fact” that underlies its text. This doesn’t demand religious belief, but does require the performer and listener to have some ability to access the wonder and gravity implied by the title. It is a difficult task, to saddle a war-horse with this kind of freight, but isn’t that the task of live classical music now, to make audible the profundity and timelessness that has preserved the works?
By applying these admittedly demanding standards, we find a way to talk about Boston Baroque’s and Martin Pearlman’s approach to Messiah that goes beyond preferences of historic practice and aria-by-aria prosecution. By this measure, most performances will be found wanting; there are particular characteristics to this Messiah, however, that suggests that a thorough-going rethinking might be advised. In his program note, Pearlman suggests they mostly have Messiah figured out: “I personally have found it satisfying to return to the work each year not so much to perform different versions of it or to consciously try to do something ‘different,’ but rather to discover more details and greater depth in the music.” He expects the listener to “focus on the drama of the work and how a particular performance presents it.” It is therefore disappointing to have received an interpretation that grappled with very little beyond the decorative surface.
Let us be clear that this is not due to the application of currently received historically informed style. At this point, many if not most of us [the publisher aside] have grown up with period Messiahs and do not carry any special brief for, say, Beecham’s interpretation. Pearlman describes his period-instrument approach as “detailed [and] articulate” with “quicker tempos based on Baroque dance rhythms and speech patterns,” and indeed tempi in Parts I and II were rapid to the point of being frantic. Dotted rhythms turned into hiccups (cf. “His yoke is easy”), passagework sounded like a race to the finish. But tempo as such isn’t the main complaint here. Interpretive extremity can interesting and satisfying if it illuminates the experience or induces a physical or emotional reaction. Too often in this Messiah the rapidity is relentless (many, many numbers are marked in my notes as “this fast?”) and often unvarying. The performers are so accomplished that even the fastest sixteenth-note choral writing came across as clear and effortless, but also curiously unexciting; once the novelty wore off, the technique and fine detail lacked any sense of strategy or architecture—with one important exception, which I will get to.
Despite the excellent execution, Jordan Hall felt a little out of sorts on this evening, the strings, in particular, sounding silky but a little dulled or covered. The vocal soloists did their best to invest their fast-moving parts with something deeper than “dance rhythms and speech patterns,” with varying success. Baritone Andrew Garland’s conveyance of authority, intelligence and emotional sensitivity brought constant pleasure. He alone clearly searched for something deeper than mere musicality. Soprano Amanda Forsythe was rushed through the music of the Christmas angels, and was more gymnastic than joyful in “Rejoice greatly”, but was able to stretch out and deliver her Part III music (“I know that my Redeemer liveth,” “If God be with us”) with beautiful, vari-colored phrasing. Mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero sang with a dark and sweet tone that blended almost too well with the strings, into which she occasionally receded. Tenor Joshua Kohl tended towards strength and declamation, which made for an exciting “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” but which was a bit chilly in “Comfort ye.” The chorus of 21 was nimble and suave; each number arriving spot on, often over very quickly.
This Messiah whizzed by, but its textural invariance left one tired. A single break was taken after Part I, although a brief moment was taken to accept applause after “Hallelujah.” This was a relatively lightweight “Hallelujah,” not a show-stopper, which I know is a source of disappointment for those who find this to be the climax. “Hallelujah” dramatically celebrates the profound and mysterious Resurrection, but the entire story of Christ only comes to fruition in the realization of God’s full eschatological plan. “The trumpet shall sound” depicted this moment in the clear dramatic culmination of the evening. Pearlman chose a fleet but reasonable tempo which found Garland and his trumpeter Robinson Pyle in command—joyful but restrained. This aria towered above the rest of the show. This suggests hope for future Messiahs. Boston Baroque clearly has this work entirely in hand technically. It might be time to look beyond the stylistic details and the dance meters, and seek a direction that is not merely “different”, but which engages the work as profoundly as possible with an eye to the oratorio’s full dramatic impact.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.