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.