Boston Baroque serves up a stylish and individual “Messiah”

December 3, 2023 at 3:17 pm

By Katherine Horgan

Martin Pearlman conducted Boston Baroque in Handel’s Messiah Saturday night at GBH Calderwood Studio. File photo: BB

Handel’s Messiah (1741) is a staple of the American Christmas tradition. Even though the bulk of the piece focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection, many of Boston’s fine ensembles perform the Messiah from November to January in celebration of the holiday season. 

Boston Baroque’s annual performance took place Saturday night, led by Martin Pearlman, with soloists Amanda Forsythe, Tamara Mumford, Karim Sulayman, and Roderick Williams. All involved offered a profound interpretation of Handel’s score characterized by superb attention to detail and musical sensitivity.

Even as oratorio go, Messiah is abstract; as Pearlman says in his program note, the piece has little narrative or characterization, with the exception of the annunciation of Christ’s birth to the shepherds at the end of Part I. The work of this oratorio thus becomes the fusion of the contradictory portrayals in the person of Christ in Part II—an intellectual victory marked by the Hallelujah Chorus—and the further unification of mankind in Part III as all take part in Christ’s salvation.

In addition to the basic interpretive challenges, Boston Baroque Saturday night grappled with the acoustics of GBH’s Calderwood Studio. While excellent for the event’s live-streamed audience, the studio lacked the kind of resonance that covers a multitude of musical sins. Rather, the unforgiving acoustic can make the smallest mistake obvious. 

However, Boston Baroque shone even here, as the limitations of the space displayed the perfect harmony and remarkable accuracy of the ensemble and chorus. The program’s libretto was hardly necessary with the chorus’ precise articulation, and the ensemble was led beautifully from the front by Pearlman, from above by concertmaster Christina Day Martinson, and from below by intrepid bassist Motomi Igarashi. Pearlman’s ensemble was itself an example of the Messiah’s transcendence of discord through the power of unity and trust.

Pearlman’s masterful interpretation was obvious here: his insistence on Baroque tempi, small ensemble, and period instrumentation, along with an admirable artistic restraint, prevented the piece from succumbing to 20th-century heaviness and instead preserved an 18th-century intellectual flexibility. Many conductors, swept away by the excitement of Part I, leave little to no musical intensity for Parts II and III. This decision leaves chorus and soloists exhausted, and the orchestra to plod through the piece’s final—and most important—developments. On Saturday night Pearlman’s mastery of the score was on fine display: the Hallelujah chorus, while spectacular, was a climax, rather than the climax. Pearlman allowed the ensemble to reach its full pitch only at the final “Amen” of Part III, which attained a sublimity that left the audience to feel the full force of Handel’s achievement.

Roderick Williams’ rich baritone grounded the whole oratorio. He offered such a rousing “The Trumpet Shall Sound” (aided and abetted by trumpet player Justin Bland) that the audience was moved to spontaneous applause. Amanda Forsythe was thrilling in “Rejoice Greatly Oh Daughter of Zion” and “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.” While Forsythe’s glittering coloratura was sparkling as ever, her vocal control in the stunning pianissimos of “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” suspended time—a balm for any soul.

Mumford and Sulayman also held their own, albeit with some lack of power in the dry hall. Mumford’s rich low range gave “But Who May Abide the Day of his Coming” a solemn intensity, and Sulayman’s sweet tenor brought out the human pathos in “Thou Didst not Leave His soul in Hell.” The strongest moment for the two was in “O Death, Where is Thy Sting?,” where the delicate interplay between tenor and alto created a poignant dialogue. 

The chorus’ perfect unity resulted in an ensemble that performed its work with unselfish dedication to the piece. The orchestra, too, was able to maneuver effortlessly between its spotlight role in the Overture and “Pifa,” and its support of soloists and chorus elsewhere. Timpanist Jonathan Hess and trumpet Bland, too, negotiated beautifully between their moments of instrumental prominence and their relation to the group. 

Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes. Boston Baroque’s interpretation is one that, in line with the group’s philosophy of scholarly historical practice, preserves the unique combination of pleasure and intellect that characterizes Handel’s corpus. As Pearlman says in his note on the program, the joy of performing Messiah is not necessarilymaking it new, “but rather to discover more details and greater depth in the music.” Boston Baroque’s performance of the Messiah allowed its listeners an intimate musical encounter with a piece so familiar that it is often taken for granted. Through meticulous faith in Handel’s score, the ensemble made the return to and the renewal of this piece one and the same.

Messiah will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Jordan Hall. 

Katherine Horgan is a writer and teacher in the Boston area. She is a former printed program coordinator for the Tanglewood Music Center, and has written program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the TMC Orchestra. She received her undergraduate degrees in English and music from McGill University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in English literature at Harvard University, where she studies Renaissance literature.

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