One of the best-known choruses in Handel’s Messiah usually breaks forth with the bold assurance of divine retribution. But as Boston Baroque performed “He shall purify” at Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon, the chorus and period instrument orchestra opted for hushed intensity. The music glowed rather than blazed, as if the singers were caught up in a quiet, but fervent prayer. For conductor Martin Pearlman, who has led Messiah with Boston Baroque every year since 1981, this music expresses as much inner conviction as outward exuberance. He explored both of those elements to make this seasonal score teem with both fresh and familiar vigor.
Serving as harpsichordist and conductor, Pearlman achieved that feat by adhering to quick tempos. That lent a particular terpsichorean zest to Part I, where every gesture, trickling melisma, and harmonic sweep fell naturally into place. It also served the narrative relayed through Charles Jennens’s libretto, which told of the coming of Christ. Clear diction down to every percussive “t” made “And the Glory of the Lord” ring joyfully. So too did “For unto us a child is born,” where the singers wove their running lines into thick sonic tapestry.
Pearlman drew palpable conviction by leaning into the oratorio’s darker textures in Part II. “And his stripes were healed” took on greater weight than what is typically heard. That let “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” resonate like a statement of ardent faith. Even the “Hallelujah Chorus” came across as much plangent war cry as elation. In the many choral fugues, Pearlman worked with precision. The lines of “His yoke is easy” and “Worthy is the Lamb” rang as clear as crystal goblets. Yet the conductor’s subtle push and pull to the tempo injected just enough surprise and vitality. This was a Messiah built less from bold contrasts than upon myriad details—all to the benefit of the whole.
The fine cast of soloists, several making their Boston Baroque debuts, explored a wide range of character for this character-less drama.
Tenor Karim Sulayman strode from avuncular warmth to righteous anger over the course of three hours. “Ev’ry Valley” glowed in his buttery voice. “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” conveyed bitter pathos. All came to a head in “Thou shalt break them,” which he sang with requisite Baroque fire. Tamara Mumford’s colorful mezzo-soprano channeled darkness, light, and many shades in between. Her wide vibrato generated intensity to varying effect. While it may not have suited “But who may abide the day of his coming,” her approach made “For he is like a refiner’s fire” smolder. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” tipped towards the light, while “He was despised” rang with poignant sorrow. Soprano Amanda Forsythe delighted through her effervescent tone and delicate flourishes. Her trills and running lines brought live-wire gusto to “There were shepherds abiding in the fields” and “Rejoice greatly.” Forsythe complemented Mumford to beguiling effect in “He shall feed his flock,” a splash of sunshine against a mighty oak. Roderick Williams’s baritone brooded with fierce determination in “Thus saith the Lord.” But he too proved an inviting presence when called upon. “The trumpet shall sound” lilted majestically, Williams’s voice sounding bold against natural trumpeter Justin Bland’s lyrical graces. They earned a rousing ovation.
So did the orchestra, which evinced zeal throughout. The overture set the energy surging, with the “Pifa” bringing sweet bucolic departure. There, the period strings, led by concertmaster Christina Day Martinson, played with utmost sensitivity. Pearlman, organist Michael Beattie, and cellist Michael Unterman supplied a continuo that was felt as much as heard. To be sure, Messiah demands as much chamber delicacy as sweeping momentum. All it takes is an ideal balance among superb musicians—like these — and a fearless leader.
The concert will be available on-demand through the month of December; it can be purchased, starting at $9, HERE