Saturday, December 13, 2014

Messiah triumphant

Harry Christophers conducts.  Photo: James Doyle.

I was probably not alone in hoping that this year's Messiah at Handel and Haydn would be something special.

And judging from the tumult that followed the oratorio's final, exquisitely moving "Amen," I was also not alone in thinking this version had indeed proved triumphant - and not only sparkled like another jewel in the crown of the Society's bicentennial, but was inarguably the finest Messiah of Harry Christophers' tenure - which makes it one of finest Messiahs to be heard in Boston in many a year.

Of course by now it's widely acknowledged (although you read it here first) that Christophers has brought the H&H chorus to a sublime peak. In fact I'd argue there's no finer chorale in Boston at the moment; some are larger, of course, but none can boast the interpretive subtlety and expressive precision that is now the standard at H&H. 

Still, I've often expressed frustration with the Society's Messiah, as conductor Christophers seemed to have trouble drawing a roster of soloists to match the gleaming vocal machine he had so painstakingly assembled here.

But this year's quartet was different - perhaps the best across the board that H&H has brought together in ages, for anything. Soprano Joélle Harvey (a favorite from previous H&H appearances) once more displayed a superbly controlled melisma in such arias as "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!" and illuminated glowing emotional depths in the transporting "I know that my redeemer liveth." Meanwhile tenor Allan Clayton was her match in tenderness, while projecting perhaps a deeper knowingness that was evident from the opening bars of "Comfort ye," and reached a heartbreaking climax in "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart."

Choral directors - hire this man!
And for once I even warmed to the countertenor, Tim Mead, who was consistently elegant in his phrasing, and deployed more power than his predecessors in the lower range of the part; his duet with Harvey, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd" for once came off as a marriage of equals (I see I wrote "gorgeous" next to this aria in my program). Best of all was bass Brindley Sherratt (at left), who gave recitatives like "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts" the authority of an Old Testament prophet, but later infused that command with a compassionate grace that transformed the famous "The trumpet shall sound" into a climactic statement of redemption.

Was everything perfect? Well, almost - I still wish Harry could nurse along "He was despised and rejected of men" at more than a crawl; but this year the chorus brought a welcomely abrupt power to the following "Surely He hath borne our griefs," and the cascading phrases of "He trusted in God that He would deliver Him" were brilliantly teased into something like sneering laughter - an effect that's only possible, I think, with singers as nimble as these.

Needless to say, familiar moments from previous years delighted yet again: "For unto us a Child is born" still danced along the night winds with the angels - who were once more impersonated by trumpeters Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti, who blew their song of triumph from the second balcony. The orchestra was also in close to their finest form, with concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky taking care to tune the ensemble onstage to avoid the subtle slippages in tone that can bedevil period performance. Like everyone else, the players seemed to give this Messiah just the right balance of transparency, heartbreak, and redemptive warmth.  I doubt I will hear its better - or even its equal - anytime soon.

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