Saturday’s “Messiah” performance in Jordan Hall, the second of two this season by Boston Baroque, happened to coincide with a not insignificant winter storm. But Mother Nature was little match for the flock of “Messiah” faithful; a large crowd still braved the snow and turned out to hear music director Martin Pearlman and his ensemble bring, once more, good tidings to Zion.
Boston Baroque, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season, has been performing the oratorio on period instruments since 1981. The group’s yearly challenge is therefore a paradoxical one: to deliver a routine holiday tradition without betraying any encrustations of ritual, to momentarily persuade us that this music is as fresh today as it was at its first performance in Dublin in 1742, when the crowd was packed in so tightly that women were asked to leave their hoops at home and men to avoid wearing swords.
Pearlman, to his credit, strives for this freshness but does not fetishize it to the point of interpretive distortion. In Saturday’s rewarding performance there was no sense of novelty for its own sake. Tempos, informed by Baroque dance, remained brisk without tumbling into breathlessness. Conducting from the harpsichord, Pearlman drew characterful playing from the orchestra, with the violins in particular, led by Christina Day Martinson, sounding electric in the surging passagework of “For He is like a refiner’s fire” and “Why do the nations.”
Yet as Pearlman notes in the program, it is “the chorus [that] has the greatest role of any actor in ‘Messiah’” and true to form, the choral singing here, scaled to the more intimate dimensions of Jordan Hall, boasted accuracy and warmth as well as an appealing transparency, if not always quite the sonic bloom of which it is capable at its best.
Another part of what made this “Messiah” fresh was the presence of four soloists each performing with Boston Baroque for the first time. Soprano Kiera Duffy displayed not just a bright and agile soprano but also at times an appealing inward-drawing quality that made, for instance, the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth” affecting beyond its surface beauty.
Kate Lindsey’s mezzo-soprano was attractively veiled if somewhat underpowered, and while the lower-lying portions of some of her arias did not seem to showcase this young singer’s many strengths, she brought a movingly grief-stricken quality to “He was despised.” Jesse Blumberg’s baritone had more finesse than firepower but he used it intelligently. And Nicholas Phan’s tenor was smooth-edged, clear and ringing in “Every valley,” and throughout the night.
Even casual “Messiah” fans know how treacherous the trumpet solos can be when attempted on a period instrument. So during the ovation that followed Saturday’s performance, extra cheers went to Robinson Pyle for his high-wire virtuosity in “The trumpet shall sound.” And deservedly so.