Saturday, December 21, 2013

Messiah's second coming at Boston Baroque

Photo: Steve Dunwell.

Now that we are reaching the actual Christmas holidays themselves, Messiah season is drawing to a close. As usual, its twin peaks were performances by the Handel and Haydn Society and Martin Pearlman's Boston Baroque, which pioneered the period music rendition of the piece some thirty years ago, and reprised it for a passionately loyal crowd in Jordan Hall last weekend (in previous years, above).

Pearlman's take on Handel's classic by now I suppose counts as a local brand; if over at H&H, Harry Christophers' vision of the oratorio has slowly become diffuse, Pearlman's has remained in steady focus.  To his mind, Messiah is a secular entertainment (despite its title), with rhythms indebted to dance forms, and a musical voice tuned to the intimate, indeed almost scaled to the salon.  Now to my mind, this elides all sorts of complicated artistic and historical questions - but there's no argument Pearlman's version plays well in our secular age, and it certainly shook up an overly calcified tradition; Pearlman can definitely claim a leading role in the period-music transformation of Messiah.

Of course some now say that Pearlman's Messiah is itself set in stone - which isn't quite fair, although much of the Boston Baroque version remains perennially pleasing, and/or frustrating.  Pearlman is certainly right about the dancing lilt to Handel's beat - just as he's certainly wrong about the breathless clip at which he sometimes takes things.  I'm not going to argue that last point again (I know by now that this conductor will never hit the brakes), I'll just express my sympathy for the chorus. They do their best - and they do quite well - but it's hard (or even unfair) to judge their diction or expressive color when they're basically singing as fast as they can, or revving up for the big punch (sometimes on a single syllable) that Pearlman seemingly wants to deliver.

The orchestra fares better under his baton, by far. In years past, whenever Pearlman sat down to the keyboard (he accompanies on harpsichord) the instrumental ensemble tended to slip, but this has been corrected - indeed, last weekend the strings were sublimely focused, and the orchestral introductions were the loveliest things on offer.  And Pearlman's Messiah does have a secondary, rarely-commented-on strength: he intelligently links sections of Charles Jenner's rhetorical text into long thematic arcs that play rather like movie scenes.  This subtle structure was more apparent than ever in this year's edition.

Unfortunately, as at H&H, the soloists proved a mixed bag.  A small cult has risen around young tenor Nicholas Phan - and his rich, clarion upper-middle register gave one a good idea why.  But he proved quite uneven elsewhere in his range, and was all over the map interpretively - at least until his ringing "rod of iron" aria.  Likewise mezzo Kate Lindsey, though blessed with an intriguingly pure tone that's touched with hints of dark smoke, struggled here and there with the low end of her part (you basically need a good alto for this, and that's that).  Soprano Kiera Duffy fared better, though her vibrato was heavy, and her lithe brightness at times developed an edge.  Most consistent was baritone Jesse Blumberg, who lacked a deep end but sang with sturdy masculine authority.  He was all but eclipsed, however, in his big aria by trumpeter Robinson Pyle (Boston Baroque's reliable secret weapon) who accompanied the "The trumpet shall sound" with exquisitely sustained sweetness.  It was the most transporting moment in the annual return of this personal rendition of Handel's masterpiece.

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