Donald Trump may be intent on making the world safe for “Merry Christmas” again. But in certain quarters, Christmas-season rituals have not exactly fallen out of style. This past weekend, the Handel and Haydn Society returned to Handel’s “Messiah” — for its 164th consecutive production of the beloved oratorio. And as an indication of how important the work remains to H&H and its public, this is the only offering of the organization’s entire season to get a three-performance run led by artistic director Harry Christophers.
For his part, Christophers has from the outset made “Messiah” one of the signature contributions of his Boston tenure, leading performances in all nine of his seasons at the organization’s helm. He can, in short, be counted on for a fluid and theatrical traversal, one that keeps its focus on the long lines of the drama as a whole rather than getting bogged down in its many constitutive parts. Sunday’s performance in Symphony Hall, the third of H&H’s three this year, was true to form in this way. Christophers kept the tempos brisk, the singing vivid, and the onward flow of Handel’s massive drama of redemption ineluctable.
Even as it surged ahead, this “Messiah” had moments to savor in the orchestral department, among them “Glory to God in the highest,” in which those antiphonal trumpet volleys sent necks duly craning up toward the second balcony to find their source; the almost palpably slashing dotted rhythms in “He gave His back to the smiters”; and the calming pastoral lilt of the Pifa. Christophers keeps his orchestral forces small in number, and makes a persuasive case for the virtues of supple responsiveness over sheer sonic heft. After some recent experimentation, it was also a relief to see the layout of the H&H strings back to normal.
The performances by Sunday’s vocal soloists — Katherine Watson (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), and Sumner Thompson (baritone) — were consistently handsome and polished, even if a few too many arias seemed to pass by with certain depths of pathos left unplumbed. The true beating heart of Sunday’s performance was the chorus, whose ranks were drawn from the main H&H Chorus, the H&H Young Women’s Chamber Choir, and the H&H Young Men’s Chorus. Christophers drew not just precise and clear singing from the assembled forces but also a vibrant range of color, from the hollowed opening bars of “Since by Man Came Death” to the stately grandeur of “Worthy is the Lamb.” You’d expect quality from the H&H Chorus at this point. And those additional young singers — some of them no doubt participating in their first “Messiah” — did themselves proud.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Harry Christophers, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Dec. 3Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at Jeremy_Eichler.