Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The story of Christ according to Christophers

Trumpeter Jesse Levine in a previous performance.

Last weekend I spent a pleasant afternoon - as I do every year, this time of year - in awe of the chorus and orchestra of the Handel and Haydn Society, which wrapped its 160th rendition of Messiah in high style (and to thunderous applause, and much hooting and stomping of feet, too).  Under the direction of Harry Christophers, the chorale in particular once more produced one of the most eloquent versions of this Handel classic ever to be heard in these parts (the H&H chorus is a bit like the Boston Ballet in that regard - already stellar, it reliably inches higher in quality with each passing year).

So as we left Symphony Hall, I wasn't surprised to hear my partner cry - to no one in particular but the sky - "That was the best 'Hallelujah Chorus' I've ever heard!" Because I had to agree (and between us we've probably heard close to fifty).  Indeed, for a while I toyed with "Best Hallelujah EVAH!" as the title of this review.

But there's a flip side to the H&H achievement. Over his tenure Artistic Director Harry Christophers has built a highly compelling choral reading of this brilliant piece; indeed, he has sculpted it before our eyes over several seasons, re-calibrating the balance here, etching enunciations or subtly shifting the dynamic there. His interpretative ideas have slowly but steadily accrued over time.

Harry Christophers in action.
And yet across that same arc of performance, his soloists have been all over the map - although I have to admit, their odd juxtapositions remain about the same, like scrambled pole stars, year after year. There is always one gesture toward the early-music faithful - a countertenor takes the alto part (although Handel didn't write the part for a countertenor, and this year's model, like most years', couldn't convincingly cover the lower end of the role).

But elsewhere little early-music consistency - or any consistency, really - is evident among Harry's choices.  The soprano's voice, for instance - though supple - was constantly atremble, while the tenor sometimes seemed to be deciding in the moment whether to unleash his vibrato or not. The only really convincing performance - the one that made emotional and artistic sense in its choral setting, that is - came from bass-baritone Sumner Thompson. Although his voice perhaps lacked a diving-bell-deep low end, Thompson alone seemed to understand that he was projecting a dynamically shaped piece of postmodern British musical eloquence (that had been informed by, but was not determined by, the early music movement). Everybody else just seemed to be doing his or her own thang.

So I'm puzzled. In fact, I've been puzzling over this since last weekend. I'm usually quite good at figuring out aesthetic questions - that's why I'm a critic; but I've puzzled over this one till my puzzler was sore. And for the life of me I can't figure out what Harry's getting at with these strange arrangements.

Well, Christmas is a mystery, the priests and bishops tell us, so maybe this is, too. Certainly the chorus and orchestra made a joyful noise, and left the holiday crowd quite merry. To be honest, the orchestra seemed a little tentative in its opening bars, but soon warmed to their great themes. And when tenor Tom Randle wasn't pondering on-the-spot interpretive decisions, he sang with sweet transparency (in "Comfort ye my people)" and then with rousing authority (in "Thou shalt break them with a  rod of iron"). Alas, the perpetually-crestfallen countertenor, Daniel Taylor, took "He was despised and rejected of men" at an absolute crawl, which threw into high relief the limits of his lower range (to be fair, Taylor, like many countertenors, does shine when he climbs toward soprano territory).  Sumner Thompson, as I've said before, was the crowd-pleaser - a stern patriarch who softened at the finish for a forcefully lyrical "The trumpet shall sound" (to lilting accompaniment from trumpeter Jesse Levine). And then there was the curious Gillian Keith, whose quicksilver soprano is sometimes beguiling, but also constantly aquiver, and whose phrasings tend toward a slightly daft sense of private rapture (which reads awkwardly in  the very public musical space of Handel's oratorio).

But there's also that chorus. The sopranos seemed even more focused than usual this year, although I felt a newly burnished richness among the basses, too. Highlights of the performance included a fleet, yet scrupulously detailed, "For unto us a child is born," a pinpoint-staccato "He trusted in God that he would deliver him," and a truly triumphant closing "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen." And of course the best "Hallelujah Chorus" evah, which built from a sense of soft awakening to an expansive sense of triumph - and during which Harry graciously gestured to the audience to stand (yes!). Listening to it, I wondered whether for their 161st version of this classic, the Society might allow its own talented choristers to divvy up the solo roles. I'd bet good money such an experiment would bring a newfound coherence to Harry Christophers' over-arching vision - whatever it may be!

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