Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jesus Christ, it's a Messiah face-off!

Handel's Messiah is, of course, the greatest piece of gay church music extant (and one of the greatest pieces of music extant, period). These days, however, it's been drawn into another culture war: scholar Michael Marissen has argued, according to Jeremy Eichler, that it's tinged with the "Christian triumphalism historically directed against Jews," and that "the Hallelujah chorus emerges as a kind of tuneful schadenfreude, cheering the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple."

Oy! Never mind the usage problems in the phrase "emerges as a kind of tuneful schadenfreude" - I mean that's a really big word, okay, from Europe no less, and I'm sure the Globe editors are doing the best they can. But as for Eichler/Marissen's argument - puh-leeze. Baroque opera queen vs. Israel lobby? Could the Messiah be so meshugeh? Hey, within the walls of the rad academy, anything is possible, I suppose, and frankly, the idea of some colloquy pitting queers, Jews, and early music wingnuts against each other makes me wanna shout hallelujah in tuneful schadenfreude!

Luckily, neither the Handel and Haydn Society nor Boston Baroque - who stage rival Messiahs - has been silly enough to have been drawn into this pseudo-imbroglio; but then they've always danced around the fact that Handel was probably light in the loafers, too. No matter. The Messiah is so obviously gay, swinging as it does between "depressed" and "festive" numbers, that Barbara Cook should record it. Messiah's Jesus is a single man (like Handel) persecuted simply for being who he is, and whereas Bach might hammer in painful details about thorns and nails, Handel (and his "librettist" Charles Jennens) dwell on the rejection of Jesus rather than his enhanced interrogation - their libretto is essentially a story of cosmic man-love betrayed and then redeemed.

And above all, Messiah is simply fabulous, with that "simplicity" being part of its mystery. Harmonically, it should be dull - the Hallelujah chorus barely strays from the tonic - but instead it's endlessly moving and compelling, from its opening promise of comfort to its final, softly reverential "Amen." Listening to it again is to realize that tying Messiah to the anti-Semitism of Christianity is a vain quest, because, simply put, Messiah is bigger and better than the religion it celebrates. Particularly today, bent as it is on poisoning the well of our politics, Christianity looks like a travesty of its martyred founder's dream - but Messiah is that dream made real, in which we're actually worth redeeming and can really love Jesus back. Of all the Christmas traditions, it's probably the only one with any real spiritual power.

And perhaps a gap in said power was why I found the Boston Baroque version, which charmed with its lilting, dance-oriented rhythms and consistently spry attack, slightly lacking in the end. To be fair, the group had spurned my request for press tickets, so perhaps I wasn't much in the Christmas (or even Chrismukkah) spirit when I attended - but my heart warmed to Pearlman's thoughtful program notes (which H&H would do well to emulate), and his light touch at first captivated me - particularly his sensitive handling of tempi. Pearlman basically always had his foot on the gas pedal, to either ac- or de-celerate, which often brought to Handel's famous tone-painting a startling dramatic power; for instance, on "And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host," the strings swooped in with such dazzling speed that we could all but feel the beat of seraphic wings (Correggio's version, above left). And Pearlman was lucky in some of his soloists; generally, BB had better women, while H&H had stronger men. Soprano Amanda Pabyan sometimes verged on the shrill, but she sang with clarity and feeling, while Ann McMahon Quintero (who replaced ailing countertenor Alan Dornak) while not always dicting as clearly as she might, still impressed with the poignant color in the depths of her rich alto. Tenor Kerem Kurk, alas, had Pabyan's clean line but little in the way of emotional commitment, while bass-baritone Kevin Deas offered plenty of declamatory power, but again, little expressive subtlety.

Meanwhile, over at H&H, soprano Cyndia Sieden sang with transparency, and mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers projected a pleasing authority - but somehow both felt locked in a slightly rhetorical mode. Here it was the men who delivered the passion, with tenor Tom Randle, while a bit preening at times, still putting over grippingly sensitive readings of every line, and bass Christopher Purves making supple jumps across his range.

Where H&H pulled away from BB, however, was in their respective chorales. Pearlman produced a handsomely blended sound from his slightly smaller chorus, but somehow British conductor Harry Christophers (left) worked a thrilling alchemy with the H&H singers. I may have never heard a chorus find such a precise match between eloquence and passion - somehow the line between word and song simply melted away under Christophers's direction. Their acting was likewise exemplary - Pearlman hardly bothered to suggest the edge in Part II of Messiah (where the focus is on the trial of Jesus), but Christopher brought a very convincing sneer to "Let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him," for example. And in the end, this commitment to the oratorio's human story, rather than any surprises in technique or interpretation, won the day.

Of course, truth be told, Pearlman's version, rooted as it is in period scholarship (and widely available on a Grammy-nominated disk) has probably influenced H&H more than H&H has influenced BB. And the crowd justifiably roared its approval of the Boston Baroque soloists, orchestra and singers at the end of that last, rapturous "Amen."

Still, the Christophers version was something special - and capped what has been an amazing year for Handel and Haydn. Their recent Beethoven evening was nothing less than spectacular, and Roger Norrington's version of The Seasons last spring was nearly as memorable. By any rights, the group should be at sea right now - they're still putatively in a search for a new Artistic Director, and have been hopping from one guest conductor to another for the past year or more. But perhaps because many of those guests have been such assured specialists in their respective repertoires, the group has basically moved from one triumph to the next. One can only hope their winning streak continues with the return of Christophers for the Royal Fireworks Music this spring.

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