Hark, the Handel angels sing, glory to the newborn King (of Kings, Lord of Lords, forever and ever, Hallelujah, Ha-ad-nauseam-lujah)! The venerable Handel and Haydn Society counted its 166th consecutive annual “Messiah” in Symphony Hall this weekend with a quartet of soloists that could warm the warhorse-weary heart of any concert-hall curmudgeon.
H+H shrewdly invites a fresh roster of guest conductor and soloists each year for the performances. Having experienced more “Messiahs” than one would like to count, it takes something special to jolt out of a Thanksgiving food-coma into genuine giving of thanks for great music and musicianship. Last year’s stark, lean rendition under Bernard Labadie set a high bar, spottiness among the soloists notwithstanding. This time, with a much more evenly matched field, H+H delivered once again.
Guest conductor Masaaki Suzuki, whom early-music enthusiasts revere for his spare and spiritual Bach Collegium Japan, led a daintier, dewier, more easeful and regenerative, one might say Easterly “Messiah” that fully leaned into the pastoral palette. The ever-admirable H+H orchestra and chorus, at 28- and 30-strong, respectively, complied with a tumbling lushness and warmth that sometimes fell short of yesteryear’s immaculacy, but nonetheless charmed.
“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,” the opening words set the tone. Now, for three hours, at least, was our winter of discontent made glorious spring, with soft caress of sunshine and fresh grass bowing in the breeze. The choral fugue “And he shall purify” dropped as a gentle rain from heaven, all mercy and manna, part purgative, part promise. Perhaps it is only against this already idyllic backdrop that “All we, like sheep” seemed to fall heavier-hooved, resulting in a slightly less haunting transition to “and the Lord hath laid on Him.” (I nitpick here only because H+H’s utter perfection of this section last year continues to reverberate in the mind’s ear.)
Elizabeth Watts plied her versatile voice from float-falling ribbons of lyric soprano to a bronzed dramatic mezzo, boldly risking occasional sacrifice of loveliness for more interesting interpretations. Her “Rejoice greatly” left the audience no choice but to do just that, all but daring the hall with a wink and an elbow to laugh and skip along.
Tenor Nicholas Phan, in his H+H debut, and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, whose last H+H appearance was the 2017 Beethoven Symphony No. 9, also under Suzuki’s baton, are no strangers to Boston music-lovers. Just this March they jointly graced us in Boston Baroque’s “Jephtha.” Happily reunited here in a more balanced showcase of their complementary talents, both opened with a hint of strain and stiffness, but quickly warmed to their deeply sympathetic selves. Phan traversed plaintive to clarion with his customary lissomness. Burton’s enunciation and articulation, uncharacteristically for him, muddled a little in softer passages, but elsewhere with his voice “rais’d incorruptible” in implausibly long sunbursting lines, there should be medics on standby for sudden heart-swell en masse.
Above all, countertenor Reginald Mobley, director of H+H’s Every Voice initiative, embodied and radiated the “Arise, shine, for thy light is come” spirit of the concert, beatifically beaming through his colleagues’ performances as well as delivering his own brilliance. In current faddishness, few countertenors wield as favorable a heft-to-hype ratio as Mobley, whose luxuriously peony-petaled instrument can make an entire meadow blossom in a single held note, and whose ornamentations flicker soft as a butterfly wing catching the light. His “He was despised” began with such a measured neutrality, it was almost shocking to note the lack of drama, but the slow-burning build through the agitations of the aria’s middle to a quietly devastating end endures as one of the most memorable moments in any “Messiah” I have heard, enough to ruminate upon until the next glorious Coming.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, Saturday
CJ Ru is on Twitter at @cjruse.