“…A fine Entertainment…” was how librettist Charles Jennens described Handel’s setting of his Messiah upon its completion in 1741. This past weekend, 280 years later, Boston Baroque under founding director Martin Pearlman delivered said “fine Entertainment” over the etherwaves to my monitor (and to a 190-person studio audience for each of three iterations) amidst a season of Messiah performances, and almost on the heels of yet another excellent Boston HIP one from Handel & Haydn Society under Harry Christopher [reviewed HERE]. Boston is a mecca of HIP, with a plethora of festivals and performing groups from universities, churches, and performing arts groups throughout the city, attracting international performers and world-wide audiences.
So how is it possible to create a memorable Messiah in such a climate? It becomes ever more difficult to claim a “first,” although Boston Baroque does in fact claim the first [modern] performance on period instruments of the whole oratorio in 1981. The answer may be best expressed in Martin Pearlman’s own words: “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. For me, that is what makes it perpetually “new.” A work such as Messiah is inexhaustible.” [from the Program Notes].
Perhaps the depth of this weekend’s performance in the GBH Calderwood Studio was the re-discovery of Jennens’s exquisite dramatic setting of verses from the whole of the Holy Bible, rendered in such a way as to create a unique piece of theater in which one could be drawn into the proclamatory and revelatory aspects of the work, making it a “more than” music experience.
And for this at-home reviewer, Livestream Director Matthew Principie’s ever-panning, zooming and dissolving video work and Antonio Oliart’s satisfyingly reverberant yet detailed sound mix brought the experience to me almost as a personal encounter.
From the outset a rapid-fire overture and dramatic heralding of Isaiah the Prophet’s “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” as delivered by tenor Aaron Sheehan set both tone and pace for what was to follow.
Christopher Lowrey, countertenor, delivered the alto aria “But who may abide” striking an effective balance between the lyric and dramatic, which was a feature of those Italianate arias that followed the Baroque “Doctrine of the Affections” – where the opening or ‘A’ labeled segment represented a single ethos, while it’s contrasting ‘B’ section would represent its opposite, in this case the “refiner’s fire”. The customary ornamentation for the return of the opening was appropriately sparse and tasteful, in a way that lent poignancy to the drama rather than calling attention to itself.
These two aria examples typified the overall approach and fine rendering of the whole of the oratorio by all four soloists, but this review would be amiss if it did not also recognize the outstanding voices that delivered truly memorable performances. Again, we chose two examples to typify the whole. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas, another familiar figure on Boston’s musical landscape, had an easy and appealing stage manner, coming across as a friend having a conversation in one’s living room rather than delivering a performance. Yet his voice filled the room with a rich warm glowing sound that never faded whether on the high or the low notes, of which Handel was sparing of neither. Indeed, his final aria toward the end of the evening denoting the sound of the last trumpet of the resurrection and teaming up with Jesse Levine playing on a period instrument natural trumpet, elicited the only break-in applause from an otherwise highly disciplined but enthusiastic audience.
Indian-American soprano Maya Kherani delivered a most dramatic rendering of the angel sequence of recitatives announcing the birth of the baby Jesus in Part One while displaying a sound that was full, rich and deeply resonant in the beautifully lyric arias that follow throughout the oratorio. Kherani tended to offer more elaborately ornamented passages than her counterparts, but they were deliciously rendered with a natural grace and ease, even to the heavenly high B-flat in her improvised cadence for the final aria of the night from Romans 8, “If God be for us,” often cut from Messiah performances.
We note two other highly important “characters” in the drama. The truly virtuosic and memorable chorus partnered equally in the proclamatory aspects of the drama, as did the period orchestra, ably led by concertmaster Christina Day Martinson, and conductor-harpsichordist Pearlman. He founded Boston Baroque in 1973, leading them to six Grammy nominations and through 26 recordings. It became abundantly clear how devoted are his long-time performers, sponsors, and audiences.
The final choral “Amen”, arriving after a performance that seemed to highlight the dramatic and punctuated text settings, came almost as a relief with its soaring legato rendering of the melismatic lines. The only articulated notes here were the occasional longer-value quarter-notes that periodically interrupted the continual flow of the faster moving eighth notes. These articulations achieved a subtlety that recalled the thematic relationship of these notes to “And with His stripes” while at the same time being a transformation of them to become an expression of the final glory of all that Jennens’s and Handel’s Messiah represents.
Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.