Handel and Haydn Society serves up an exciting and expressive “Messiah”

November 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm

By Stefanie Lubkowski

“Christ of St John of the Cross” by Salvador Dali, 1951.

The Handel and Haydn Society opened its traditional weekend holiday presentation of Handel’s Messiah, Friday night at Symphony Hall. This weekend’s concerts will be recorded for release next October.

From the opening “Sinfony” section, the period-instrument orchestra performed with the confidence that comes from deep familiarity with this annual favorite, but also with a gusto that communicated delight in the work. Under conductor Harry Christophers’ direction, the orchestra brought out all the warmth of Handel’s orchestrations, was dazzling in the contrapuntal passages, and provided ideally balanced support to the soloists and the chorus.

Tom Randle’s opening recitative and aria promised the audience an evening of graceful and energetic solo singing that was largely fulfilled. The tenor’s powerful yet sweet voice made the long phrases and lofty runs of his first aria, “Every valley shall be exalted” seem buoyantly effortless.

The chorus maintained the high level of singing in their first number and showed off a bright, full sound, seamless among the sections, and without a hint of strain in the crescendos.

Likewise, baritone Sumner Thompson contributed a smooth, rich, and well developed tone to his solo recitatives and arias. His talent and skill were highlighted in a deft and sinuous rendering of “The people that walked in darkness.”

Countertenor Daniel Taylor had perhaps the most beautiful and expressive solo voice on stage Friday, yet he lacked power, as in a rather restrained version of “O thou that tellest good tidings.” Soprano Gillian Keith ably closed out this first third of the oratorio with verve and grace. Her first aria, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,” was delivered with a beautifully clear and round tone and an impressive execution of the lengthy ornaments, albeit with a rather intense vibrato.

While the first part of The Messiah describes the birth of Christ and is primarily celebratory in tone, the second part is full of ferocity and sorrow as it recounts the crucifixion. The initial choral sections are full of solemn passion, to which the singers added just the right amount of pathos.

“He was despised” gave Daniel Taylor the opportunity to show off not only his beautiful timbre, but his intense expressiveness by bringing a heightened emotion to this rather declamatory aria.

Randle detailed the suffering of Christ with a moving and impassioned lamenting tone that was energetically mirrored by the chorus. The short staccato phrases of their contrapuntal number “He trusted in God” were delivered with punchiness.

Rather than the clichéd brash joy of the “Hallelujah” chorus as heard in soundtracks and seasonal advertising, Christophers led the Handel and Haydn chorus and orchestra with a dynamic musicality, starting quietly enough to allow for a nuanced unfolding, leading to a dramatic climax.

Gillian Keith opened the final part of the Messiah with a lovely rendition of “I know that my redeemer liveth,” whose straightforward melody and long notes showed off her beautiful tone. Sumner Thompson gave a similarly tender yet triumphant performance of “The trumpet shall sound” in which he remained perfectly balanced with the sonorous tones of Jesse Levine’s trumpet.

The chorus delivered equally inspired and well-balanced performances. In “Since by man came death,” the chorus achieved a wonderful striking contrast between the quiet initial phrase and the exuberant answer.  The chorus maintained a contented delight down to their last number “Worthy is the lamb that was slain,” which they performed with a triumphant and luxuriant sound that made this final chorus the true high point of the work.

The evening began with an aperitif of familiar Christmas carols pleasantly sung by the
Handel and Haydn Society Vocal Apprenticeship Program’s Young Women’s Chorus. The following performances will include carols by the Young Men’s Chorus and the Youth Chorus.

The Handel and Haydn Society repeats Handel’s Messiah 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org

Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new-music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series and Equillibrium.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Handel and Haydn Society serves up an exciting and expressive “Messiah””

  1. Posted Dec 02, 2013 at 10:35 am by Wes Mott

    Thanks, Ms. Lubkowski, for a much more appreciative review of the H&H *Messiah* than the ill-tempered and self-contradictory review in the *Globe*. Yours captures the beautiful, fresh performance that I heard on Saturday.

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