Okay purists, put down the lorgnettes and stop sniffing in disdain. Absolutely no Messiahs were harmed in the making of this Messiah. Quite the contrary, a mostly thrilling and detailed performance of this evergreen work, full of passion and commitment, took place on November 30th at Avery Fisher Hall. Messiah is the one work that overshadows absolutely everything else in Handel’s output.
Let’s get the bad jokes out of the way now: “Messiah Inflated,” “The Biggest Gainer,” “Enlarge Ye my Orchestra.” Feel better? Gigantism began creeping into the work even in Handel’s time, with the famous English choral societies often numbering in the hundreds. This was the age of absolute rulers—palaces and pomp. And no less a genius than Mozart thought fit to re-instrument it for his time and style. These practical men of music didn’t suffer from the stilting reverence of which we are often guilty. If we are going to perform this work in a hall that seats 3000, some adjustment may be permitted.
With just a few cuts introduced by Eugene Goossens, the performance clocked in at about 2 hours 40 minutes, the same as on my Christopher Hogwood ground-breaking “historically informed” recording from the 1980s. Conductor Jonathan Griffith led the massed forces with great energy and a compromise approach, including some stylish double dotting, but broader tempi to accommodate the increased instrumental sound. He also introduced some very “grand old British gentleman” ritards which were absolutely welcome. I don’t know if that was his innate musicality, or if they were specified by Goossens or Beecham. The only minor annoyance was the presence of the triangle and cymbal, neither of which added much to my enjoyment.
The “Pifa,” or Pastoral Symphony that is in Part I was absolutely magical in the pianissimo return of the theme, played by a smaller cohort with pinpoint style and hushed, awestruck beauty.
When the chorus entered for its first number “And the glory of the Lord,” the sound was absolutely thrilling. These choristers are a cosmopolitan bunch, from France, Brazil, Guatemala, Georgia, Kansas, Hong Kong, Wisconsin, New York, Australia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Germany, obviously so well prepared by their local conductors that they can travel to New York and put themselves together with Maestro Griffith and his orchestra, who brought great unity and color variety to their singing, which was never generic, and was most exciting in the full-voiced passages. Their clarity and rhythmic vitality was very good in the difficult chains of sixteenth notes.
The four soloists were also excellent, with visible involvement in their texts, crystal clear diction, and stamina. Tenor John McVeigh has a sweet lyrical voice that would sound well in front of a Baroque orchestra as well. His “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow” was a highlight of the tenor-heavy Part II.
Soprano Penelope Shumate was a real find for me, with a voice that has been described previously in New York Concert Review as “radiant,” and I can see why. The clear tones were true and expressive, one of the best “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” that I have ever heard live. Her “I know that my redeemer liveth” was lovely.
The mezzo-soprano, Holly Sorenson, had perhaps the hardest job being heard over the increased orchestration, no fault of hers, but an accident of the lower tessitura. Her “He was despised” was lovely and appropriately grief-stricken, but I wanted to hear the middle section and da capo (shame on Goossens for this one).
Bass-baritone Christopher Job avoided the hollow, sepulchral tones that one sometimes hears from true basses. His voice ideally suited the punishing “The trumpet shall sound,” and was every bit the match for the clarino trumpet (excellently played). However, I would have wished for a darker color on “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” which he did beautifully on “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” with “mystery” having its own special mysticism reflected in the voice.
Griffith found a nuance I had only heard once before (in a “historically informed” performance by Les Arts Florissants): the lightening of the voices in the chorus “His yoke is easy and his burden is light” on the final two words, perfectly realized tone painting. The Hallelujah chorus and the concluding “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” and fugal “Amen” benefited from two extra “ambush” antiphonal choirs placed in the left and right balconies of Avery Fisher Hall. The proximity of the sound to the audience only added to the grand intensity of these seminal moments.
Worthy indeed, was this Messiah.