Saturday, December 15, 2012

Messiah returns at Boston Baroque

Robinson Pyle sounds off on natural trumpet. Photo: Julian Bullitt.

One returns to the Boston Baroque version of Messiah as one returns to an old friend; you already know precisely the way it's going to delight you. (And, perhaps, the way it's going to get on your nerves.)  It has now been decades since artistic director Martin Pearlman pioneered the light, dancing tempi which made his intimately entertaining, essentially secular approach to Handel's masterpiece so revolutionary.  But now that his ideas have taken the whole period music movement by storm, his Messiah has, in a way, become a victim of its own success.  Other choruses have incorporated Pearlman's brilliant innovations, and extended them into larger statements while keeping his buoyant feel; so (as I've mentioned before) what once felt revolutionary now feels familiar.

This is the way of things, of course, and I'm happy to hear this wonderful oratorio again (and again and again) in any form.  As I've often said, Messiah is one of the great Western documents, like Hamlet, or the late quartets, or Starry Night at MOMA (which actually may be the perfect illustration for the adoration of the shepherds, if you ask me).  You return to it as a touchstone, to remind you what it means to be human.

So I think of the Boston Baroque Messiah as a touchstone, too.  Pearlman clearly hasn't changed his mind on any of the big issues (and neither have I); these days he concentrates on the details instead.  And he still understands the drama of Handel's instrumentation better than anyone; his Messiah is not only a dance, but an exquisite soundtrack.  Yes, Pearlman tends to take some things too fast, so the chorus's diction isn't always pinpoint, and vocal colors don't always ripen as they might.  But no one quite conjures the flutter of the angel's wings above the shepherds in Part I as he does - and he also succeeds in giving the latter half of Part II a sense of arc, and his lilting take on "The trumpet shall sound" remains sweetly glorious (thanks in no small part to the great Robinson Pyle on natural trumpet, at top).  To be honest, familiar as it is, Pearlman's Messiah is still often magical.

But alas, while I can usually praise his soloists as well his conducting, this year's model proved a mixed bag in that department.  The sunny soprano Mary Wilson, a beloved regular at Boston Baroque, for some reason wobbled early on in her upper register, and tenor John McVeigh, who proved a bit light for his role in general, aimed for a top note at one point and missed it entirely. Meanwhile alto Ann McMahon deployed a rich middle register and a memorable dignity (and she looked smashing), but her reserve seemed to hold her back from full emotional commitment, and she had to speak-sing the bottom notes of the role.

There were a few issues in the orchestra as well, at least on opening night.  When Pearlman took to the harpsichord, you sometimes could feel it in the coherence of the ensemble, and I couldn't help but notice that one of the violins slid slightly out of tune in Part II (a pitstop for re-tuning solved that, thank goodness).  The net effect of these small slips, any one of which was understandable, was that the performance often felt slightly out of focus.

The good news was that baritone Andrew Garland, who last impressed in Partenope, made an even bigger splash here, with a stern power and a sense of rhetorical drama that I personally feel is just right for Messiah (and which tipped the whole evening from the salon to the pulpit).  Pearlman has one of the most reliable eyes in the city for rising talent; here's hoping Mr. Garland remains a fixture in his vocal stable.

Certainly the fan base of this Messiah isn't going anywhere; Jordan Hall was packed for this performance, and the crowd roared its approval at the close.  And just btw, even though Messiah season is winding down, you can join these loyal admirers, and savor two of Mr. Pearlman's vocal favorites - local star David Kravitz and rising light  Courtney Huffman - at Boston Baroque's upcoming New Year's Day concerts, which if you don't know are among the most delightful classical events in the city; not only ravishing, but also often a hoot.  (These will sell out, though, so don't delay.)

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