In George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Messiah,” a regular fixture of the Christmas season, the chorus has most of the fun. Not only do the choristers sing the celebrated “Hallelujah” chorus that ends Part II with Christ’s resurrection and by tradition brings most of the audience to its feet. The chorus dramatizes many of the biblical narrative’s climactic moments, and does considerably more celebrating and jubilating than the orchestra or the four vocal soloists (who do most of the grieving).
In the accomplished if rather stiff performance of “Messiah” given at Symphony Hall on Friday evening by the impressive forces of the venerable Handel and Haydn Society, the chorus seemed even more dominant than usual. Every time the 30 chorus members rose to sing, they injected a welcome charge of energy and enthusiasm into a lengthy and occasional repetitive work that does drag here and there. Under the subtle and elegant command of conductor and artistic director Harry Christophers, the H&H orchestra, playing on Baroque-era instruments, accompanied them (and the soloists) with refinement, discipline, and a strong sense of musical camaraderie. What the evening was lacking was a strong sense of drama or passion, especially from the four soloists, never less than competent but rarely more than that.
There are as many different performing versions of “Messiah,” first performed in Dublin in 1742, as there are ways to make a martini. (An 1869 Boston performance featured a chorus of 10,000 voices and 500 instruments!) Christophers chose to use forces similar to the ones Handel had in Dublin: 30 chorus members and an orchestra of about 30 players. Joining a soprano, bass-baritone, and tenor, a countertenor (or male alto) was employed instead of a female contralto or alto; both were used in performances during Handel’s lifetime.
Here, the soloists are soprano Gillian Keith, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Tom Randle, and baritone Sumner Thompson. Randle was the most persuasive, inspired, and committed, and the only one who not only sang but acted his part. His agile voice carries well throughout the range, and engages both the text and the audience. His aria “Thou Shalt Break Them,” just before the “Hallelujah” chorus, was a vivid highlight. Keith warmed up as the performance progressed, excelling in “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” The long and challenging duet between Thompson and trumpeter Jesse Levine (“The Trumpet Shall Sound”) needed more bling, but still made a strong impression. A dramatically underpowered Taylor appeared to be out of vocal sorts, and did not project into the hall even with Christophers’ sympathetic conducting.
Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky as usual provided exemplary leadership in the orchestra.Harlow Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named George Frideric Handel’s oratorio as “The Messiah.” The correct name of the work is “Messiah.”