“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people” are the first words sung in Handel’s “Messiah,” and in Boston those words go down like comfort food every holiday season. This marks the 159th consecutive year the Handel and Haydn Society has presented Handel’s oratorio, and if in the past the piece has conjured a big Christmas pudding, more recent performances under Handel and Haydn’s music director, Harry Christophers, have offered food for thought. That was certainly the case with the reading Christophers and his orchestra and chorus presented last night at Symphony Hall.
Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, gave their audience a lot to think about. Those opening words may be reassuring, but over the next two hours, as the chorus and soloists narrate Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection, God promises to “shake the heavens, and the earth,” Jesus hides “not his face from shame and spitting,” and “the kings of the earth rise up against the Lord and His anointed.” The pastoral siciliana that introduces the angel’s Christmas-tide annunciation to the shepherds reappears in “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” and then in “How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them that Preach,” but it also, with ominous syncopation, provides the rhythm of the doleful “Behold, the Lamb of God” chorus that opens part two. And if “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray,” in the final chorus it’s “The Lamb Who Was Slain” that saves us.