Thursday, December 9, 2010

Photo(s) above by Kyle T. Hemingway.

It was Messiah time again at Handel and Haydn last weekend - only in the hands of Harry Christophers (below), it's never quite the same Messiah from one year to the next. Christophers seems to be by nature a tinkerer, and of course he began his career as a professional singer, and Messiah doesn't really have a single definitive text . . . so you do the math. To my mind this variety is all to the good, actually - it keeps the tradition fresh, and at any rate Christophers generally colors within a loose set of lines (his is the Anglican, rhetorical Messiah; Martin Pearlman's, which you can hear this coming weekend, is the Continental, intimate one). I may not always agree with Christophers' tweaks from year to year, but at least they're always interesting. Last time around, I think we got a countertenor rather than an alto; this year we got a real alto, but we didn't get a bass - I know it said "bass" in the program, but singer Sumner Thompson is really more of a baritone (he sang compellingly, he's just a baritone). For the record, I liked the baritone bass more than I liked the countertenor alto, but I still think I like best a good old-fashioned soprano, alto, tenor and bass. That's just how I roll.

At any rate, the reason everyone goes to hear Handel and Haydn is the chorus, not the soloists, and this year they were as terrific as ever. And their integration with the H&H period orchestra continues apace. You can see Christophers singing the entire work to himself as he conducts, and breathing it, too, and that body knowledge inflects everything he does - the orchestra sometimes seems just an extension of the chorus, just another set of voices in far-flung, superhuman timbres. And sometimes in the call-and-response between the two groups there's a curious little lull - a small sonic space - in which I'd swear Christophers is unconsciously allowing the orchestra to breathe, too.

The soloists did hold their own against this virtuosic display, glorious as it was. Thompson sang with intensity, and tenor Allan Clayton intermittently revealed clarion power. Alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers seemed the least interesting of the quartet at first, but slowly warmed up; Christophers took "He was despised and rejected of men" at a very meditative pace indeed, but this brought out her most complex colors. Soprano Sophie Bevan was perhaps the stand-out of the group. Dressed with a d├ęcolletage more plunging than the Virgin Mary might have approved, Bevan didn't really have to depend on that to hold our interest; she has a lovely, if somewhat trembling, voice, and her rendition of "I know my Redeemer liveth" was one of the radiant high points of the evening.

But then Messiah is always crammed with high points - which is one reason I never tire of it; it's one of the great human documents, like the Ninth and King Lear or Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son." Every year I thrill to hear the revelation of the angels to the shepherds, and "For unto us a Child is born," and the trumpets calling to each other from the balconies, and even the single, unbelievably moving line, "Behold, I tell you a mystery." All of these seemed as magical as ever last weekend, perhaps because Christophers seemed to be speeding up and slowing down at will, the better to contemplate each moment individually. He saved the best for last: the final, luminous "Amen" was more moving than I've ever heard it, building from a lush, but hushed, hymn to a riveting affirmation. All I can say is, Boston Baroque has their work cut out for them!

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