“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.
Christophers is like a sheepdog when he conducts “Messiah,” pacing in front of the orchestra, ready to make a border-collie-like run at any performer who might go astray. No danger of that last night: the playing was energetic and stylish without ever becoming choppy or bouncy, and the chorus had flow as well as point, connecting all the dots in “And He Shall Purify” and “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and filling the heavens in “And the Glory of the Lord.”
The soprano’s first appearance is reserved for the moment when the glory of the Lord shines round the shepherds, and Canadian Baroque star Karina Gauvin was indeed glorious there and powerful later in “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.” Countertenor Daniel Taylor was full voiced if slightly monochromatic; tenor James Gilchrist, in “Comfort Ye,” matched Christophers and the orchestra in swell of feeling and control of dynamics, and he was resonant throughout. So was baritone Sumner Thompson, who in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” cut through the trumpets with no difficulty. The trumpets sounded mightily in the “Hallelujah” chorus, and John Grimes’s timpani made a joyful noise there and in the concluding “Worthy is the Lamb.” This “Messiah” was worthy on every level.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Harry Christophers’s position with the Handel and Haydn Society.