Pearlman, Boston Baroque delight with high-energy “Messiah”

December 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm

By David Wright

Martin Pearlman conducted Boston Baroque in Handel’s “Messiah” Friday night at Jordan Hall.

For those whose idea of Messiah is more a Ferrari than an ocean liner, the place to be Friday night was New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, where Martin Pearlman led the Boston Baroque orchestra, chorus, and guest soloists in a rendering of Handel’s masterpiece that hugged the corners, peeled out on the straightaways, and felt absolutely fine.

Even at Pearlman’s snappy tempos, the performance (with one intermission) lasted three hours, but such was the caliber of Handel’s invention, alertly realized by the singers and players, that the time seemed to fly by. One sat in awe of the aging, stroke-surviving composer who, during August and September 1741, produced so much inspired music in just three weeks.

With a maximum of 44 performers onstage (with the addition of trumpets and drums in the later sections), Friday’s concert had a chamber-music intimacy most of the time. Assumptions about balance were overturned; for example, the large harpsichord from which Pearlman conducted jutted deep into the string sections and provided not just a distant tinkle but a percussive counterpart to the gentle Baroque string tone.

Freed of excess weight, the small ensemble crafted each air, recitative, or chorus as an expressive gem, as distinctive as a Chopin prelude. The two big concluding choruses, “Hallelujah” in Part II and “Worthy is the Lamb” in Part III could hardly have been more different in character and sonority, the former lean and scrappy and almost insolent, the other as wide a choral “wall of sound” as one could desire to round off an evening of music.

In fact, the chorus of 21 singers demonstrated its versatility at every turn, from the exuberant collective bounce on the phrase “Wonderful, Counsellor” to the weightless rendition of “His burden is light” to the sarcastic, taunting, voices-in-the-crowd effect of the Passion chorus “He trusted in God.”

And for sheer vocal articulation, it would be hard to top Boston Baroque’s soprano section, whose sixteenth-note roulades— crystal-clear even at Pearlman’s wildly fast tempos—could show even Friday’s soloists a thing or two. Their sisters and brothers in the other sections were not far behind them, either.

Not to be outdone, the Boston Baroque orchestra—usually consisting of 16 string players and two oboes, with support from Pearlman’s harpsichord and Peter Sykes’s organ—coaxed a fine variety of textures and colors from its period instruments. The pastoral “symphony” that opened the work, with its mild tone and spacious dotted rhythms, provided just the right soft yet springy cushion for tenor Nicholas Phan’s tender entrance in “Comfort ye”—the first singing of the night, and a gentle promise of riches to come.

On the other hand, the orchestra played the Pifa—supposedly a shepherd’s dance—in a sort of French court version, all swoops and swells and curlicues. But later the strings showed plenty of hard edges in the “scourging” dotted rhythms of the Passion scenes.

In this intimate setting, the four soloists plainly had vocal power in reserve, but stayed focused on nuance of expression almost as if in a lieder recital instead of a concert with chorus and orchestra. Out of the gate first, tenor Phan eased softly into his performance, but preached eloquently in the Passion scenes and then took charge with a splendidly forceful “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”

Baritone Jesse Blumberg sang in a voice best described as “handsome”—unforced, not an ounce of bark or woof in it, just a clear, manly sound that should get the singer a few dates. His tone paired well with Robinson Pyle’s trumpet in “The trumpet shall sound,” although their fine duet was inevitably upstaged by the near-miraculous nuance and agility Pyle displayed on his long, valveless instrument.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey stood apart from the others in timbre, adopting a somewhat austere, low-wattage sound with little or no vibrato. Although somewhat overmatched by the orchestra in “For He is like a refiner’s fire,” Lindsey’s tone was just right for the desolate Passion air “He was despised,” a show-stopper of the quietest kind.

Kiera Duffy’s soprano, on the other hand, proved a sprightly, versatile instrument with a persistent but not unpleasant vibrato. While all the singers entertained with their ornaments and interpolations, Duffy’s added pianissimo B flat in “Come unto Him” was a high point in more ways than one.

This high-energy, dance-infused Messiah with the big final “Amen” chorus easily brought the audience to its feet. The custom of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus, however, is now more honored in the breach than the observance, and caused only confusion and distraction Friday night as about a third of the listeners tentatively rose from their seats. Some guidance is needed from the podium or in the program–let’s either go for it and all get up, or sit back and enjoy the music.

The Messiah will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. bostonbaroque.org; 617-987-8600.

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