Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Messiah at Handel and Haydn Society

Our annual Messiah season kicked off in a major way last weekend with the Handel and Haydn version, which in many ways reached a new artistic peak for that venerable organization.  This year H&H engaged a world-class interpreter of Handel, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, as a soloist - and she delivered and then some; indeed, her reading of the soprano arias probably counts as the most subtly expressive I've ever heard.  It turns out that Ms. Gauvin isn't quite as powerful throughout her gorgeous range as I'd hoped (the projection of a voice is one thing that's particularly hard to gauge from recordings); but this slight gap amounted only to the difference between being enchanted and ravished. And I was utterly enchanted; Handel holds the soprano back until his setting of those lovely verses from Luke in which the angels bring good tidings of great joy, and Ms. Gauvin did, in this scene, seem all but angelic.  My vote is to have her back every year.

As longtime Hub Review readers know, Ms. Gauvin's presence largely filled a persistent gap at Handel and Haydn, where the salient artistic problem usually revolves around finding soloists who can hold their own against a chorus which is now so consistently terrific that it may count as the most reliable musical organization in the city.  And they were at the top of their game (as usual) through the length of Messiah - perfect intonation and crisp diction in rich, vibrant timbres - the works; this is the Rolls Royce of Boston chorales.

By now I've reviewed close to half a dozen Messiahs from artistic director Harry Christophers; as I recall, it was the first of these, back in 2007, during H&H's search for a new director, that made me go, "Wow- this is their guy!" (so you can imagine how pleased I was when they agreed).  And I'd say his basic approach to this masterpiece hasn't varied much.  Although every year he tinkers with this or that, the Christophers Messiah is reliably a piece of heartfelt eloquence, a passionate flower of the Anglican tradition that all but glows with emotion.  It is grand without being gaudy, light but still measured, and floating rhetorically in a spiritual space in which church and state can humanely overlap.  In the end, Christophers understands that Messiah is a poem, indeed a kind of valedictory, assembled mosaic-like from lines (and sometimes snippets) from centuries of sacred writing that delineate the transformation of the Jewish idea of an anointed savior into the Christian concept of a divine redeemer.

Now whether you believe in the Christian idea of God Incarnate or not (I don't), it's hard not to be moved by the power of Handel's (and librettist Charles Jennens') grandly detailed conception.  And somehow Christophers manages to channel their sense of spiritual grace for a secular age; his Messiah seems to revel in its roots, its connectedness to the best of a glorious tradition.  (Perhaps that's why the H&H crowd still instinctively stands for the "Hallelujah Chorus.")

Of course - the Christophers version has its quirks, chief among them the repeated presence of a countertenor in the alto role.  This year's model was Daniel Taylor, who I admit did boast a hauntingly mournful middle range.  But we got quite enough of that color, and its attendant dolor, in "He was despised and rejected," (which this year Christophers took at a crawl), and elsewhere Taylor seemed unable to modulate into the hopefulness of "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened," much less the joy of "O Death, where is thy sting?"

Luckily, the other soloists offered more variety.  Tenor James Gilchrist had an eccentric way with Handelian melisma, to be sure, but he had a surprising power at his command, and something like Old-Testament thunder in such recitatives as "All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn." And then suddenly, with "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart" Gilchrist was indeed, heartbreaking.  Almost as good was Sumner Thompson, a local favorite of mine, who isn't quite a bass, but who nevertheless could summon a stern, old-school authority, as well as an unexpectedly poignant lyricism in the aria that I feel is the most beautiful in the whole oratorio, "The trumpet shall sound."

The trumpets do sound, of course, from all over Symphony Hall in the H&H version, and as played by Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti, they were glorious this year.  The winds were once again on point as well, and the strings their familiar agile selves; meanwhile the reliable John Grimes brought his usual rolling flair to the timpani.  It was another grand and memorable edition in what has become a 194-year tradition at Handel and Haydn.

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