IN: Reviews

Messiah for the 18th and 21st Centuries


In the auspicious year of 1812, some 76 years after its premiere in Dublin, and 51 years after the composer’s death, the Handel and Haydn Society introduced Handel’s Messiah to America. This weekend, Boston Baroque brings its 38th-annual HIP version to Jordan Hall.

Messiah mavens all have their stories. I first sang as a weak alto chorister at age 13 on a muggy August evening in a boathouse rehearsal at a now long defunct summer music camp on Upper Saranac Lake along with other mesmerized campers and four musician counselors, acting as soloist “ringers.” We performed the full oratorio later that week at the local inn; fortunately, no recordings survived, so far as I know. In the decades since I have probably attended professional performances almost every year—from large-scale and ponderous to slight and fast, and have gone to scores of sight sings and even a few tipsy private versions, replete with eggnog breaks. This year BMInt has listed at least 6 Boston-area traversals, including H and H’s superb rendition last week (see CJ Ru’s December 3rd review HERE), and several community venues.

Conductor Martin Pearlman has aimed since 1981 to have it heard and appreciated as initially intended by Handel—an oratorio with 18th-century orchestration, fit for a smallish venue, not for a cavernous hall. Pearlman conducted alternately from a front-and-center (tail toward the back wall) harpsichord or standing. The 25-musicians, included an organ (ably played by Michael Beattie) to participate in the continuo and to provide effects, which we found sonorous and beautiful. The tuning, seating and removal of end-pins from the violoncelli and violones provided a further air of authenticity.

Boston Baroque’s ponderousless Messiah fits Handel’s intent, at least in his Dublin account. The 25-strong professional chorus and the four soloists possessed arresting stage presences coupled with the chops to mostly keep pace with the very fast tempi, particularly in Part 1, though some disarray ensued when the chorus, some of the players, and, to a lesser extent, the soloists, went for speed at the expense of phrasing and perhaps feeling. But for the most part, the musicality of the participants vanquished the Mach-2 overdrive that occasionally took over.

Countertenor Eric Jurenas gave riveting and versatile interpretations throughout in his Boston debut. From his first recitative at “Behold, a virgin shall conceive,” to his last “O death, where is thy sting,” his clarion voice and sensitive phrasing stood out and buoyed the dramatic texts. Tenor Shankle’s foreshadowing narrative entrance in “Comfort ye” followed by “Every valley” rang clear without strain. Shankle has exciting shading to his voice and sings with ease. Nathan Start is far less showy, but his pitch is spot on, and his resonant timbre intoned “Why do the nations so furiously rage” to perfection. With her ravishingly substantial instrument, soprano Layla Claire made a compelling stage presence.

Pearlman continues to be a passionate, articulate and consistent voice for restoring Messiah to the spirit of its 18th-century world. Many of his touches did so delicately—ornamentations and various adjustments, fitting for Handel, who himself often revised passages to suit individual singers. And, as hinted, a few that didn’t—scrambling for articulation and ensemble. However, the overall effect was thrilling. About a third of the audience stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” but almost the entire audience stood and cheered at the end.

Amateur pianist and long-time music lover Julie Ingelfinger enjoys day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. An ezcellent review of yet another merely perfect rendition of the piece by Boston Baroque — at least to my mind and ear. I just have to say that we’re all musicians — instrumentalists and singers alike.

    Comment by jaylyn — December 8, 2018 at 9:45 pm

  2. Bah! Humbug!! Says ol’ Ebenezer Prout (1902 edition). Does anyone ever do a “traditional” Victorian-Edwardian version of “Messiah”? I’d like to hear one for a change just to bring back memories of the time before our tastes got “aetherialized” (Patience) or “Woke” (any modern millennial). Channel 2 had the tape of an entire H&H Big Messiah using Ebenezer Prout’s reorchestration–just about the biggest edition ever–and used to play it at Christmas. My voice has largely gone but I used to enjoy tackling the Messiah every year, graduating from bass to tenor. Even got to do some of the arias; “But Who May Abide, the Day of His Coming?” was great fun and I even got the conductor to allow a baroque cadenza at the end. Those were the days. Since everyone is going for Baroque these days, again, does anyone ever do the romantic versions now?

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — December 19, 2018 at 2:26 pm

  3. Speaking of those (were the) days: “the arrangement by Prout … is imbecilic in conception and brutal in execution … a great mud-puddle … an oddly dirty sound … structurally uncomprehending and perverse … score sounds like yesterday’s coffee grounds ….” (MSteinberg Boston Globe 1960s)

    Comment by davidrmoran — December 19, 2018 at 3:31 pm

  4. The good old pendulum swings…vegetarian to carnivorous even within the lifetime of Handel. Mozart got the spirit, Prout’s intentions were as honorable as Mendelssohn’s in resurrecting old masters…

    Whatever works for bringing-in the drama of the musical narrative. Nothing wrong with honking Brit choruses in Albert Hall, or 20 voices in a parlor. But beware of pronouncements.

    Beecham did it variously, with modest forces, and with Goosens help, he reached the apotheosis of dramatic engagement:

    Beecham reduced his forces for fleet sections…Jon Vickers–he’s the tops.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 19, 2018 at 3:57 pm

  5. I have some 45 recordings of Messiah, from Beecham, Ormandy, and Solti to Parrott, Gardiner, and Minkowski. The Sargent recording from 1959 with the enormous Huddersfield Choral Society, Otto Klemperer with the inimitable Jerome Hines thundering out the bass arias, Leonard Bernstein using the countertenor Russell Oberlin back in 1956, fifteen years before anybody else would use a male alto. Adrian Boult and a recording featuring the young Joan Sutherland and Grace Bumbry; Karl Richter (in German) with Maurice André on trumpet. David Willcocks and King’s College with their all-male forces, no soprano soloist, just the boy choristers singing the arias in unison!

    Then came Christopher Hogwood in 1979, and the period instrument forces. For a while it seemed like the faster and more sterile, the more “authentic” the performance. But it’s gone back the other way, and later period recordings like Paul McCreesh, René Jacobs, Harry Christophers, and Emmanuelle Haïm are full of character, creative ornamentation, and spirit. One size does not fit all, and thank goodness for that!

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — December 20, 2018 at 5:43 pm

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