In every classical music writer’s life, there are three great inevitabilities: death, taxes, and writing up Handel’s “Messiah” every December. But as “Messiah” goes, one could do a whole lot worse than the incandescent, engrossing rendition of the seemingly immortal oratorio that Boston Baroque rolled out at Jordan Hall on Saturday evening. The vital luminosity of the work contributes to its perpetual presence, but even more so does a performance like this one.
The ensemble has been staging zestful and intimate period-instrument “Messiah” performances since 1981, when it was more common to hear the work performed with beefy instrumental and choral forces. This year’s outing struck gold on the three key ingredients of orchestra, choir, and soloists. Music director Martin Pearlman conducted from in front of the harpsichord, in bracing, accented tempi. Concertmaster Christina Day Martinson led the strings in flinty dotted rhythms representing the scourging of Jesus. Peaks and valleys stood out in vivid relief, and organist Peter Sykes added pleasing bursts of power.
The chorus was light and nimble in many places where other ensembles would have laid it on thick. In “For unto us a child is born,” brilliance gathered gradually until the singers threw open the gates of heaven, proclaiming “Wonderful, Counselor . . .” in pealing tones. Some sections could have let loose more, such as “The Lord gave the word,” but such restraint may have been a pragmatic choice as much as a stylistic one, as the performance ran approximately three hours including intermission, and burning out the choir too early wouldn’t have boded well. The “Hallelujah” chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb,” and the final “Amen” held nothing back where it mattered.
Aaron Sheehan, one of the finest baroque tenors on the circuit, floated through his recitatives and airs like a wind-borne feather. His cherubic instrument was round and rich but agile, and flecked with shards of sunlight. Soprano Ava Pine’s crystalline lyricism glowed through “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
Baritone Stephen Powell returned to the Jordan Hall stage on the heels of an earthshaking performance in Odyssey Opera’s “The Trial at Rouen” last week; an unhurried and deliberate “The trumpet shall sound” allowed his bountifully resonant voice to bloom, bolstered by Jesse Levine’s soaring baroque trumpet solo. It slowly warmed from the inside, like a good whiskey. Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy made a memorable Boston Baroque debut, with a dolefully entrancing “He was despised.” Her vowels were tall, her lines cleanly sculpted, and her timbre refreshingly earthbound.
Jordan Hall was not full — perhaps some of the empty seats were casualties of the season’s first snow — but from the sound the crowd made at the end, it may as well have been standing room only.
At Jordan Hall, SaturdayZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.