Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Messiah complex

H&H Concertmaster Daniel Stepner.

There's at least one Christmas tradition that isn't really a tradition any more - in the last few years, Messiah has morphed from the equivalent of checking off a box on the Christmas list to something like an ongoing aesthetic argument. First came the early music revisionists (led by Boston's own Martin Pearlman), who pulled the work back from the nineteenth to the eighteenth century (where it basically belongs). Then last year Harry Christophers, Handel and Haydn's new artistic director, offered a striking amalgam of the lighter "new" Messiah manner and its "older" Victorian proclamative power. And now this year's model from H&H, driven by yet another innovative British conductor, Paul Daniel, unveiled another vision altogether: Messiah as personal musical statement.

The results were by turns fascinating and moving, but also somewhat eccentric, and sometimes even slightly irritating. Daniel's reading was nothing if not fresh, and his players and singers responded to every surprising decision with excitement and passion - and this kind of intellectual commitment to musical exploration is, I admit, what impresses me most about this group; they'll follow their conductor anywhere, even when he decides to open the "Hallelujah Chorus" at something close to a whisper.

But I confess I wasn't ready to follow Mr. Daniel (at left) quite that far, and sometimes it struck me that he was looking at Messiah as a kind of academic experiment, or even personal musical toy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I'm just a cultural stick-in-the-mud - but it might also be due to the fact that I know when a piece has been almost over-considered. In a word, this was a Messiah that rarely let rip, and as a result some of its glories - in particular its joy and power - had gone missing. The conductor also willfully subsumed the dramatic text into the musical one - he was only too happy to push diction into a blur if he wanted to step on the musical gas, and even the final, gorgeous "Amen" was de-constructed into a set of disconnected notes; it was a lovely, intriguing musical phrase that recalled the moment's medieval sources, but it was not the word "Amen." I also noticed a certain repetition in Daniel's originality - he liked tender beginnings that rushed into slightly-melodramatic climaxes; certainly a time-honored technique, but by the third or fourth time around, one that had begun to sound a little corny. In the end, this conductor's Messiah was as much a tour of his own musical world as a thoughtful re-imagining of a tradition.

But hell, it's Christmas - and Daniel certainly bore many lovely musical gifts. The highlights of his Messiah were the gentle and melancholy moments that many other versions overlook: from the opening "Comfort ye" to "Behold the Lamb of God" to "I know that my Redeemer liveth," this was a Messiah of hope and solace rather than confident affirmation. Sometimes the piece was even heartbreaking - the "We shall be chang'd" segment was particularly piercing, via a beautifully dramatic reading by bass Brett Polegato. Handel and Haydn hasn't seen Mr. Polegato since 1999 - too long a break, if you ask me.

As for the rest of the soloists, however, I'd have to say "meh." No one else had Polegato's power (this was perhaps by design); at least mezzo Paula Murrihy projected a sense of profound personal feeling in "He was despised." But alas, soprano Kendra Colton and tenor Brian Stucki only managed the usual generic "heart." The chorus was nimble and attentive to Daniel's every whim - you could almost see them calculating exactly how loud he wanted them to be. But they sounded a little thin as both the jubilant congregation of "For unto us a Child is born" and the snarling mob of "Let Him deliver Him, if he delight in Him." The orchestra was the conductor's real musical focus, and I have to give Daniel props for the most cleanly delineated musical layering I've heard yet from H&H - in this department, he rivals James Levine. Daniel drew particularly fine work from the timpani, and of course the reliable Jesse Levine, H&H's secret weapon on natural horn.

And in the end, I have to admit it takes guts to simply ignore the presumptions of a tradition and follow your own road, which is precisely what Mr. Daniel has done. Oddly enough, despite the many caveats of this review, I'd be eager to hear him again, although maybe not in the saddle of this particular warhorse. I guess I just like my hallelujahs to sound like "Hallelujah!"

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