In 1770, some 45 years before the Handel and Haydn Society came into existence, New York enjoyed the American premiere of extracts from Handel’s “Messiah.” In 1773, just months before throwing chests of tea into the harbor, Bostonians heard their own program. Something about Handel’s 1742 oratorio appealed to the American Colonists, and one could certainly imagine that it was the kind of easy simplicity evident in the performance the society gave under artistic director Harry Christophers Friday. With just 30 singers and 29 instrumentalists, Christophers keeps the scale personal, but he also avoids the antimusical approach of many slam-bang period-instrument presentations. His “Messiah” sounds so natural, he hardly seems to be doing anything at all.
That’s not the case, of course. On Friday, every decision was driven by the text; instead of lulling you to sleep, the performers called attention to what the words mean. In the bass air “The people that walked in darkness,” baritone Christopher Purves produced a huge swell on “seen a great light,” and the orchestra supported him. And after the chorus’s lilting “For unto us a child is born,” Christophers pointed the music, pausing ever so slightly before starting the pastoral siciliana, equally lilting, but in triple time.
This year’s soloists made a strong quartet. Soprano Sophie Bevan was sweet-voiced and full at the top. Her “I know that my redeemer liveth” started quietly but grew in ecstasy, and in “If God be for us, who can be against us?,” the way she filled out “at the right hand of God” was a magical moment. Alto Emily Marvosh gave an unearthly calm to “But who may abide the day of his coming?” and was beautifully plainspoken in “He was despised and rejected of men.” Tenor James Gilchrist delivered “Comfort ye, my people” as if surprised and pleased by every word. And Purves had the vocal power to match Jesse Levine’s trumpet in “The trumpet shall sound.”
But in any Christophers “Messiah,” it’s the choruses that register most. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” “And He shall purify,” “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” “For unto us a child is born,” and “All we like sheep” all had the Christophers trademarks: crisp enunciation, exceptional clarity in fugal sections, a swingy dance pulse, and an exuberant joy. Under Christophers the past half-dozen years, H+H’s “Messiah” has been remarkably consistent without ever sounding jaded. Friday the glory of Handel was abundantly revealed.
The Handel and Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Harry Christophers. At: Symphony Hall, Friday Nov. 27. Remaining performances Nov. 28-29. Tickets $25-$94. 617-266-3605,