By David Shengold
New Yorkers tend to think of Handel’s Messiah as omnipresent in December. The oratorio, premiered in Dublin in 1742, was intended (and remains most appropriate) for Holy Week and Eastertide. Long since considered Christmas fare, it makes a yearly New York Philharmonic subscription option, with four or five starrily staffed performances, plus many one-offs by choruses venerable and obscure in Carnegie Hall and other venues.
Someone should study continent-wide statistics historically, but from the 2016 totals at various leading orchestras — New York and Toronto, 5; Houston, 4; Washington and San Francisco, 2; Philadelphia, 1 — one might posit some connection between Messiah frequency and the social and cultural importance of Protestantism (perhaps especially its Episcopalian form) in a given city’s DNA.
The chief exception to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s usual one-off policy was 2015, when music director Yannick Nezét-Séguin engaged a group of international artists for several shows in the expectation of a staging that financial considerations quashed. That combination of talent, rehearsal, and expenditure resulted in an admirable production. Yet this season’s return to a single performance of Messiah – a Verizon Hall matinee Dec. 18 under debuting French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann – proved in some respects even better.
Stutzmann, well established as a contralto (she sang the New York Philharmonic Messiah in 2011 under Peter Schreier), has been conducting for 19 years. Her mentors include Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle. She’s found success in orchestral repertoire way beyond the Baroque, including in opera (with Monte-Carlo’s Tannhäuser slated for 2017). Having led Messiah with the Detroit and National Symphony Orchestras, she has clearly worked out not only a cogent reading, but also how to deploy traditional orchestral forces in plausible (if not so-called “authentic”) performance style.
Here, she managed to hold in check the famed Philadelphia string sound when needed to emphasize the singing, but also gave it free rein in the overture and “Pifa,” and at apt moments behind the the splendidly agile, tonally magisterial and dramatically eloquent baritone Stephen Powell.
Rising soprano Ying Fang also made an indelible impression with her pinpoint attack and naturally joyous, sparkling clarity. Angela Brower, a fine Dorabella and Cherubino, may have been overawed as a lyric mezzo-soprano singing music too low for her under the baton of one of the work’s leading contraltos. Brower jumped ahead in two recitatives and worked hard to furnish a chesty resonance that allowed textual projection.
Lawrence Wiliford, though stylistically on point, would better have suited smaller forces: His tenor thinned both at the bottom and at full tilt. Though words emerged clearly, they seldom hit home dramatically. All four singers decorated tastefully. Joe Miller’s newly formed Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, which showed evidence of thorough preparation (“And He shall purify,” always the giveaway point for ensemble and style, went swimmingly). As she did with the orchestra, Stutzmann tapered the choral dynamics admirably.
Granted, Handel frequently reshuffled the order of Messiah’s numbers. But why does Part Three so frequently lose the emotionally essential “O Death, where is thy sting” (the oratorio’s only blended duet) and the sublime “If God be for us”? Do conductors and administrators fear that, having stood up for “Hallelujah” (honoring, Lord knows why, George II, who may never have done so), audiences want to head out ASAP? More surprisingly, “He was despised” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” suffered jarring internal cuts. But Powell and bravura trumpeter Jeffrey Curnow took the full measure of the grand final bass air, and the chorus adroitly followed Stutzmann’s hushed-to-exultant dynamic plan for the concluding “Amen.”
If Stutzmann’s debut yielded revelations, the Oratorio Society of New York’s annual Carnegie Hall mainstage Messiah under Kent Tritle Dec. 21 displayed his customary excellence. Tritle’s outings with this oratorio, with both the Oratorio Society and Musica Sacra, are reliably among the best of Carnegie’s numerous competing versions. The focus here was more choral than orchestral, and the large forces – if somewhat more deliberately paced than the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under Stutzmann – proved sonorous and accurate.
Soprano Kathryn Lewek was outstanding, with a pure, full instrument capable of great pliancy. Jakub Józef Orliński, Juilliard’s highly promising countertenor, has a winning presence physically as well as vocally; he might become Poland’s answer to Philippe Jaroussky. Yet as radiant as the sound could be – the two slow bookending of “He was despised” went especially well – Orliński revealed deviations from pitch (both microflat and microsharp) in more churning music like that great aria’s agitated central section, or at the end of long breath spans. His English was more than comprehensible, though vowels tended to deflate, and sounding the “th” cluster was problematic.
The fine tenor William Ferguson being ill, we heard a stylish effort from Canadian Colin Balzer, expert in Handelian grammar and ornamentation. Placing high notes somewhat carefully, he brought ideal ductility to “But Thou didst not leave.” Adam Lau, a genuine bass with an inky resonance recalling Ezio Flagello, performed commendably. But Powell’s eloquence and agility were still in my ears from Philadelphia, and Lau didn’t quite rise to those high notes or that grand expression of his final aria. Yet the overall standard was very high. Laudably, Tritle included both “O Death” and “If God be for us,” which Lewek delivered beautifully.
Meanwhile, Chandos has issued a new two-CD set with Andrew Davis conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in his own “concert edition” of the oratorio, which the British conductor dedicates to his parents. Elaborating on this “grand” version in the booklet, Davis cops to sampling the editions of Ebeneezer Prout and Eugene Goossens (the latter fuels the notorious 1959 Beecham recording). So one (correctly) anticipates grandiose massed choruses — the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir — and neo-Edwardian instrumental touches.
What Davis doesn’t address at all is his whopping cuts. This concerns not only the two above-mentioned Part Three numbers. What one may accept in live performance hardly guides what we would want in a version for home listening. Surely any Messiah lover will marvel to hear such wonderful and iconic numbers as “He was despised,” “How beautiful are the feet,” and “The trumpet shall sound” given only their initial A section. Davis adds some instrumentation touches that are amusing, but would one want them perpetually? “The Lord gave the world” adds marimbas; a Polovtsian Dances-worthy drum preceding “And with His stripes we are healed” reappears to punctuate “Why do the nations” (fleetly sung, if with rather muffled tone, by John Relyea).
Soprano Erin Wall, caught in quavery form, suggests that with Arabella and Desdemona her voice has moved on well beyond the needed idiom. Andrew Staples – among the many British artists often imported for North American Messiah performances, as if we had no worthy Handel singers – is everywhere “correct” and negotiates passage-work expertly, but the timbre is bland and he lends words no particular distinction. Unless you’re a TSO or TMC family member, the best reason for acquiring this set is mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, whose stirring, performance foretells a bright Handelian future.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt and other venues; he’s written program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.