Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Secular Messiah

Boston Baroque in action.

Once, a generation ago, Martin Pearlman was regarded as an ionoclast, and his vision of Handel's Messiah - performed on period instruments, with light, agile forces, and to tempos derived from dance - seemed revolutionary; indeed, Pearlman was in the vanguard of those who "took back" Handel from a century or more of grandiose Victorian encrustation.

By now, however, his ideas have proven so persuasive, and been so widely adopted, that perhaps they themselves are looking a little dated.  Period instruments are everywhere, and a dancing lilt is practically the norm in baroque performance; "early music" is now in its mature phase, and re-considerations, further investigations, and even partial refutations of some of its founding principles have taken over the cutting edge of the scene.

Thus Harry Christophers has constantly experimented with the oratorio over at Handel and Haydn, sometimes achieving dazzling new effects; but meanwhile, at Boston Baroque, Pearlman has merely tinkered here and there - usually in attempts to bring this or that sequence into ever-closer (but always in the end hypothetical) alignment with period practice.  He simply seems to have remained largely satisfied with what to many is now the "standard" early music reading of Handel's masterpiece.

And after all, I suppose, if it ain't baroque, why fix it?  (Har-de-har.)  Still, as I've listened to the "Pearlman version" over the years, more and more questions about its principles and assumptions have gathered in my mind.  The conductor has always insisted, for instance, that Messiah is not really "sacred music" at all; he often repeats the point that Handel never played the score in a church - it was designed for theatrical performance, indeed its own librettist described it as "a fine Entertainment."  The Pearlman version is essentially an entirely secular Messiah.

And this case sounds awfully convincing, I admit, until you begin to sense that Pearlman is playing a bit of historical sleight-of-hand in his argument.  For to be blunt, it's hard to buy Messiah as an eighteenth-century Jesus Christ Superstar for the simple reason that it never pushes back on its central myth (much less attempts any of the sly satire that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber got away with).  Indeed, Messiah never (ever) critiques or questions its title subject; instead it blatantly operates as a straightforward, if amazingly deep and brilliant, evocation of the central tenet of Christianity.  It is not merely an exquisite "drama," (as Pearlman would have it) just as the tale of Abraham and Isaac is not merely a punchy short story; it is essentially a religious, or at least metaphysical, idea made musical flesh.  The fact that it played in commercial theatres hardly demonstrates that it's inherently secular - on the contrary, it instead implies that Christianity still so pervaded the culture in Handel's day that sacred music could be seen as part of the hit parade.

This hardly invalidates all of Pearlman's premises; but these kinds of thoughts make you wish he could continue to investigate the piece musically, to take a break now and then from his dancing, dotted meters and see where the piece might take him.  He has already thoroughly re-thought its style; now, one wishes he would turn the same level of insight to its content, and how that might be better reflected in its form.  For Messiah is not merely a dance, or a fine entertainment, any more than King Lear is just a show.  There is a grandeur and mystery to it that's not at all related to Victorian pomposity, true - but merely dispensing with that pomposity doesn't necessarily conjure its full dimensions.

Still, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a pleasure to hear the Boston Baroque version every Christmas.  And last weekend, as ever, it was graceful, intimate and charming.  A bit rushed here and there (sometimes even in Christ's darkest hours).  But also often warm and luminous - and Boston Baroque does give Messiah a sense of dramatic arc that many other versions lack. "For unto us a child is born," for instance, remains almost a sprint in Part I, but Pearlman ties its dramatic thrust to the pieces that follow, so that we subconsciously perceive Handel's evocation of the Nativity as a single dramatic unit (ending with the famous encomium from Luke, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men").  Pearlman pulls off a similar, but even subtler, trick, at the end of Part II, where he persuasively links the cry of "Hallelujah!" to the rising militarist metaphors of the preceding airs and choruses.

And Pearlman generally chooses his soloists well - or at least they usually form a fairly coherent group in  terms of style.  Last weekend, the standout of Messiah line-up - really, the concert's secret weapon - was the great Ava Pine, who is a wonderful actress as well as a terrific soprano, and who sang with glorious authority, particularly during her airs in Part I.  Tenor Keith Jameson was also in splendid voice, and sang with radiant emotional transparency.  Meanwhile baritone Andrew Garland projected a stern, commanding tone that served him well when he was singing about raging, or shaking; but alas, the sense of spiritual transcendence that undergirds "The trumpet shall sound" - one of the great arias for baritone in the repertory - seemed to elude him.  And I'm afraid alto Julia Mintzer was even more variable, largely because a good portion of the role lay below her "break" (the point at which a singer generally shifts from "head" to "chest" voice).  Thus Ms. Mintzer was often clearly negotiating her performance technically, which pulled focus from the fact that her tone above her break was often complex and compelling.

Meanwhile the Boston Baroque orchestra, as always, played with verve and grace.  Alas, this year trumpeter Robinson Pyle didn't quite equal his brilliant playing of "The trumpet shall sound" from last season - condensation within the horn muddied a few notes in the latter half of the aria (as often happens with natural horns).  But the audience gave him an ovation anyway - everyone knows the piece is a killer.  And if the chorus couldn't quite give us pinpoint diction or a wide palette of color at the speeds Pearlman sometimes favored, still they sang quite cohesively, with both passion and pure tone.  Which reminded me that in a way, the thoughtful re-enactment of a musical tradition can be its own kind of Christmas present.

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