By Susan Brodie
NEW YORK – ‘Tis the season: every choral organization with the slightest ambition performs Messiah, in whole or in part. In New York City, half a dozen marquee performances, including a 3,000-voice Sing-In, are augmented by countless versions throughout the five boroughs. The New York Philharmonic subscription series offered five performances of a middle-of-the-road but stylish version.
Handel’s oratorio needs little introduction, but the context is worth reviewing. As London audiences for Italian opera declined, Handel increasingly turned to writing oratorios in English. His fifth such work, Messiah, used a libretto by Charles Jennens that stitched together over 40 short Biblical passages into a narration of and contemplation on the life of Christ. It premiered to great success in 1742 on a series of charity concerts in Dublin, where Handel was temporarily employed by an English envoy; it was less well received a year later in London, but in subsequent revivals the work eventually proved its worth and popularity. In the decades after Handel’s death, Messiah was performed, in entirety or in excerpt, throughout Europe and even in New York, especially by choral societies, and by the 1780s large-scale performances became increasingly common.
A contemporary account from 1857, nearly a century after the composer’s death, describes a Handel festival at the Crystal Palace, with a chorus of 2000 accompanied by an “immense band” and a huge pipe organ: “The ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ could be distinctly heard nearly half a mile from Norwood, and its effect, as the sound floated on the wind, was impressive beyond description, and sounded as if a nation were at prayers.” There’s even a series of scratchy Edison Cylinders from an 1888 Handel Festival which (barely) capture the sound of 4000 choristers and an orchestra of 500 performing for an audience of nearly 24,000.
Thankfully, the New York performances hewed closer to Handel’s original forces: 22 string players, organ, harpsichord, timpani, two trumpets, and two oboes, with a mixed chorus of 56 and four soloists (Handel used male choristers and two female soloists). Even in the acoustically challenging David Geffen Hall the sound was more than adequate from a mid-orchestra seat, though listeners more accustomed to a Mormon Tabernacle scale might have missed that wall of sound. What the evening may have lacked in floor-shaking power it more than made up for in expressiveness.
Andrew Manze, principal conductor of the NDR Radiophilharmonie, Hannover, leads repertoire ranging from Corelli to Stenhammer. But he began his career as a baroque violinist, playing in and leading groups like The English Concert for more than 20 years before expanding his musical palette. With the Phil’s modern players, Manze avoided drilling down on Baroque performance practice (there probably wasn’t enough rehearsal time!), but the British conductor selectively emphasized telling details and paced the performance to make Handel’s dramatic arc clearly audible. After the short opening sinfonia, the progression from dark, lower voices to higher pitch centers outlined the movement from prophecy to joyous birth. Beginning with the chorus “For unto Us a Child Is Born,” increasingly tight segues and the rising pitch level of the movements reflected the growing joy and excitement of the narrative.
The second part, depicting the Passion and Resurrection, opened with a short overture in the French manner, with heavy bow strokes and sharply dotted rhythms suggesting Christ’s earthly suffering. “Behold the Lamb of God” continued in this style, utilizing — for the only time in the performance — choral ornaments imitating the orchestra’s playing. In this chorus-heavy section, the transparent sound and the detached articulation demanded by Manze revealed vivid word painting rarely heard in Messiah performances.
While this modern-instrument reading, generally long on legato and light on ornamentation, might not satisfy the most demanding fan of historically informed Baroque performance, telling details stood out. In the fast sections of the alto aria “But Who May Abide,” flickering violin tremolos made the “refiner’s fire” almost visible. In Part III, the chorus “Since by Man Came Death” was sung with thrilling contrast between the hushed a cappella opening and the forceful accompanied answering phrase.
Soloist highlights included soprano Joélle Harvey’s exuberant, gleaming “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion,” and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s heartrending “He Was Despised.” Tenor Ben Bliss stole the show whenever he opened his mouth, with powerful but sweet, evenly produced tone, impeccable diction, and unforced attention to the words. Of the four soloists, he offered the most stylish and confident ornamentation, making his flourishes sound spontaneous. He’s one to watch. The normally fine bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams sounded under the weather but performed solidly, managing a robust “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” with splendid trumpet solo by Christopher Martin.
The excellent Westminster Symphonic Choir, familiar to Philharmonic audiences, responded nimbly to Manze’s direction. The clarity of their youthful sound was enhanced by precise intonation and articulation as well as minimal vibrato. It’s to be hoped that administrative and financial issues at Rider College, Westminster’s parent school, won’t silence these voices.
The sold-out house — some listeners with scores in hand — was attentive and silent, other than seasonal coughs between movements. In that hokey ritual signifying insider knowledge, most of the crowd stood for the “Hallelujah” chorus. There were almost no early departures, and ovations were deservedly long and loud. Let the holidays begin!
Messiah runs through December 16. For tickets go here.