In town these days, vivid period-instrument performances of Handel’s “Messiah” are so dependably served up by both Boston Baroque and the Handel and Haydn Society that it’s easy to take for granted just how far stylistic conventions with this music have evolved. The latest reminder arrives courtesy of a recently issued (and instantly essential) Library of America anthology of Virgil Thomson’s music criticism, edited by Tim Page. Thomson, writing in the late-1940s, fulminates against the spread of a generic “oratorio style,” one that “excuses every fault but lack of loudness, and [gives] us year after year performances of the chorus-with-soloists repertory that are styleless, inaccurate, and inexpressive.”
It was in 1981 that Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque gave the city’s first complete period-instrument performances of “Messiah,” and since then this approach has, of course, become the norm. What’s impressive about this enduring annual “Messiah” is how Pearlman and his forces distinguish consistent quality from any sense of routine.
Friday night’s vibrant traversal had plenty signature Pearlman touches, in the particular balancing of chorus and orchestra, the zippy tempos chosen, and the sharply etched rhythmic detail. Even zippy, however, can be a relative term and one in fact sensed on this occasion a slight easing off the accelerator at times, as Pearlman appeared to be searching in certain passages for previously untapped tonal and expressive depths.
Among the vocal soloists, the two newcomers — Dashon Burton and Sherezade Panthaki — were the standouts. Burton sang with a magnetic mix of gravitas, dramatic focus, and sheer vocal power. Panthaki displayed a limpid and flute-like soprano and used it effectively. Her account of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” spoke with a touching directness.
One can’t help but wonder why groups like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus are routinely asked to memorize lengthy (and rarely sung) works in foreign languages, but “Messiah” soloists are still not expected to memorize their handful of arias in otherwise deluxe performances of a work programmed religiously every year? Call it a last vestige of — what else? — the “oratorio style.”