Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Martin Pearlman conducts Boston Baroque.
I try to hear both major local versions of Messiah every year, and there was one moment from this year's Boston Baroque edition that I will never forget - the duet for bass and natural trumpet in the third part. The piece begins, "The trumpet shall sound," but in the hands of trumpeter Robinson Pyle, the instrument actually sang, in tandem with Kevin Deas, the wonderfully rich bass who was essaying a famous passage from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (the one establishing the doctrine of Christian resurrection). It's one of the loveliest melodies in all of Handel (and that's saying something), and Deas and Pyle had clearly worked together so that Pyle could closely follow the bass's ornamentation of the beautiful line, "We shall be changed." It was probably the best playing on natural trumpet I've ever heard in my life, as well as one of the most moving duets between a singer and an instrumentalist I've been lucky enough to witness. When Deas recognized Pyle at the close of the aria, it all but brought down the house.

Well, that was quite the high point - if only the rest of the performance had been so elevated! Not that Boston Baroque's version of this classic wasn't a lovely evening of music; it was. But it's beginning to feel a bit rigid in its eccentricity, and a bit unfocused in its attack. Ironically enough, the ensemble's conductor, Martin Pearlman, was among the first instigators of the revolution in Messiah performance that swept concert halls two decades ago.  Pearlman's idea was to bring the rhythms of dance to the musical drama, and to scale what had become a rigidly grand Victorian epic down to a nimbler, more intimate, and perhaps more human, experience.

In my opinion, this was all to the good - and today the stentorian Messiah that Pearlman was reacting against has pretty much become a thing of the past.  But I'm afraid over the years the conductor has become a bit rigid himself about a few things - he always favored brisk rhythms, for instance, but by now several pieces of his Messiah have gotten so fast that they aren't just dances but jigs (and they seem to shed more and more color and detail the quicker he takes them).  Plus Pearlman organizes his chorus into quartets, rather than in blocks (with all the sopranos together, then all the altos, etc.), which I imagine he thinks gives their sound a kind of blended transparency - which it does, up to a point.  But it also makes it harder for the singers to synch up the vocal melisma that is the backbone of many of Handel's melodies, and thus things sometimes turn blurry (particularly at the clips Pearlman often prefers).  Indeed, sometimes one distinctly felt in Pearlman's Messiah that he was putting the chorus at a disadvantage.  But I began to realize as I listened this year that a key difference between the Pearlman version and the Christophers version (over at  Handel and Haydn) is that Christophers, once a professional singer, views his orchestra as an extension of his chorus, while Pearlman, a keyboardist,  unconsciously sees his chorus as an extension of his orchestra - and why shouldn't they therefore just be able to sing as fast as he wants them to?

Oh, well - it's true not everything was too fast; Pearlman didn't dash through "He was despised and rejected of men," for instance.  Much of the performance was at an appropriately thoughtful pace.  And Boston Baroque had clearly corrected a problem they've had in the past: when Pearlman conducted from the harpsichord, the ensemble didn't begin to fray as it was once wont to do.  Still, the Boston Baroque orchestra isn't playing as cleanly as they might (though they now have that dancing lilt down pat).  And I was disappointed here and there with the soloists, even though I admire them all from previous hearings.  The luminous Amanda Forsythe had her usual pearly tone, but she didn't quite have the power, at least on Saturday night, that she has possessed in the past.  And counter tenor Matthew White, though he has a haunting timbre that's just right for many passages in Messiah, also scrapes a bit at the bottom of the role (which edges into contralto territory), and something about his voice didn't mix well with the tenor's in their duet.  Meanwhile said tenor, Keith Jameson, had some wonderful moments but also some tentative ones; the only member of the quartet, in fact, who sang with consistent authority was bass Deas, who outdid himself in that final duet.  It was a ringing reminder of the magic that Pearlman and company can still wreak with this immortal masterpiece.

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