Handel and Haydn’s meaningful ‘Messiah’
In 1818, the Handel and Haydn Society presented America’s first complete “Messiah.” In all, the society has now given Handel’s masterpiece 400 performances, the 400th coming this past Sunday. Some 19th-century editions were massive in scale; in 1857 the chorus numbered 600. From 1875 until the 1930s, the society offered a version based on Mozart’s arrangement of the work. More recently, the vocal and instrumental forces have been pared down; the performance artistic director Harry Christophers led Saturday afternoon at Symphony Hall had just 30 singers and a period-instrument orchestra of 29. This is not the only way to do “Messiah,” but in Christophers’s hands, it’s a very special one.
What distinguishes the current Handel and Haydn “Messiah,” even from other intimate, period-instrument versions, is its organic unity and quiet devotion. On Saturday, drama was created without excess decibels. Enunciation was excellent; you hardly needed to look at your program to follow the text. Choruses were light and tripping: “For unto us a child is born” sparkled with sunlight; “All we like sheep” skipped and played; “And he shall purify” positively hopscotched; “His yoke is easy” begged the audience to get up and dance. The “Hallelujah” Chorus, for which most of the audience stood, was rich with timpani and trumpets. For “Glory to God in the highest,” trumpeters Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti were dispatched to the second balcony, one on each side, to antiphonal effect.
The soloists excelled in conveying the message of Charles Jennens’s libretto; no one seemed interested in showing off. Bass Brindley Sherratt held his score by his side and glared at the audience like an Old Testament prophet. He sang with that kind of authority too, cutting through Levine and Perfetti with no difficulty in “And the trumpet shall sound.” Soprano Joélle Harvey, countertenor Tim Mead, and tenor Allan Clayton barely glanced at their scores, instead making lots of eye contact with the audience. Clayton caressed his opening “Comfort ye” recitative and the “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” air that followed. Mead was gratifyingly full-voiced, and the lullaby he and Harvey shared, “He shall feed his flock,” was taken at a sensible tempo and didn’t put everyone to sleep, as it so often does. Harvey was nimble in her racing “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” and gleaming in “I know that my redeemer liveth.” Both this quartet and the chorus were direct and expressive in the way that period instruments are direct and expressive. Perhaps that’s the secret of Handel and Haydn’s current “Messiah.”