Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Messiah complex

Boston Baroque in action last weekend. Globe photo by Eric Antoniou.

Martin Pearlman is our local "man behind the Messiah," in that his innovative use of early-music tempi and phrasing at Boston Baroque has, over the past decade or so, transformed the tradition of this holiday staple. Where once Messiah lumbered with a grand Victorian bearing, today it capers nimbly in the hands of smaller ensembles playing period instruments.

But this very success has made it harder for Boston Baroque's version to cut its own profile, and as Pearlman has conducted the piece over and over again, its interpretation has clearly become a kind of personal journey for him. Its essence certainly remains the same - lightness, clarity and grace - but it has acquired certain eccentric flourishes, too, and this year somehow felt a bit less focused than it sometimes has. I should also mention that I heard Pearlman's version just after catching Handel and Haydn's, under the direction of the wizardly Harry Christophers, who can match Pearlman in the clarity and speed department. This time what Martin had that Harry didn't, however, was a strong set of soloists, with one sparkling star (soprano Amanda Forsythe). And this gave B&B a heavenly edge over H&H.

Not that this is a horse race; still, comparisons, though odorous, are nonetheless inevitable. What was surprisingly similar about these two versions, however, was that both lacked a real alto. Christophers opted for a countertenor, which I felt didn't really work out - Pearlman for his part went with a mezzo, the redoubtable Ann McMahon Quintero, who displayed a rich and redolent tone in her upper register (along with a great no-nonsense attitude) but spent most of her time in her softer lower range, as the music dictates. (I hope next year somebody will cast a bona fide alto in this piece!)

Forsythe, meanwhile, was as mesmerizing as ever; it's no wonder she's become a local star, whom everyone expects to any minute be snatched away from us by the international circuit. Word was out that she was battling a cold, and of course she's expecting, too, and is several months along. Her radiance and poise were therefore all the more remarkable - she looked divine, swathed in a royal-purple Empire gown that perfectly suited her condition, and decked with sparkling jewels. Her singing was just as ornamented, and glittered with her customary open emotion and intelligence.

There were also strong turns from the male soloists - although tenor Lawrence Wiliford sang with forceful passion that was always dramatic but sometimes edged toward stridency. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones, by way of contrast, had a golden tone up and down his range - and I mean all the way to the bottom, which is remarkable among bass-baritones. He seemed so technically focused, however, that he sometimes came off as a bit blank emotionally.

The chorus for its part generally sounded gorgeous - Pearlman (at left) mixes his singers together rather than organizing them in blocks, which delivers a lighter, more diffuse sound than the standard grouping. Still, their diction was exemplary, even though the conductor favors brisk tempi ("He should have gotten a speeding ticket for that one!" laughed my partner after "For unto us a child is born," even though its joyous energy was infectious). My favorite points in Pearlman's orchestral interpretation were all still there, at least in Part One (I particularly love the rushing drama of the arrival of the angels). Things seemed to drift a bit in Part Two, but all was forgiven again once Forsythe rose in Part Three to sing "I know that my Redeemer liveth," one of Handel's greatest and deepest melodies (not for nothing is the sculpture of the great composer on his tomb in Westminster, below, holding this famous score).

Pearlman has a few ideas about Messiah with which I amiably disagree, of course - he insists, for instance, that it's secular music, rather than sacred (as Handel never actually conducted it in a church), which I suppose is debatable, although who cares about debating it? (It seems rather obvious that even if it was secular music then, it's sacred music now.) There's one penchant of his, however, I really wish he could forgo - his predilection for conducting from the harpsichord. There are talented keyboardists all over Boston, and frankly, as soon as he sits down to play, the ensemble begins to fray a bit (surprise, surprise). Once Pearlman stands up, and his orchestra can see him, the playing miraculously re-coheres and sounds wonderful. If next year he remained on his feet throughout the performance, that would count as a lovely Christmas present.

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