December 10, 2012
By David Weininger
It was said of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant that his habits were so regular that people could set their watches by his appearance on his daily walk. So it is with Handel’s “Messiah” in Boston: By its appearances in Symphony and Jordan halls, ye shall know, it is Christmastime.
This is, by and large, a happy tradition. But as regularly as the concerts return, so does the vexing question of how to keep the musical experience vital. This year marks Boston Baroque’s 32d season of “Messiah” performances. Music director Martin Pearlman has said that for him, that renewal comes not from trying to find a different conception for the piece each time, but from mining the score for fresh details and new depths.
Appropriately, many of the pleasures to be had at Friday’s performance came from micro-level points that emerged with unexpected force. Pearlman’s template is by now familiar, prizing intimacy and transparency above overt drama. There are a few moments when this approach robs favored moments of the spaciousness and grandeur they attain in other performances.
The advantage, though, is that the details stand out all the more clearly. On Friday one could savor the irresistible rhythmic bounce in “And the glory of the Lord”; spiky string attacks during “For he is like a refiner’s fire”; powerful low strings in “O thou that tellest.” At one point, Pearlman seemed to revel in the variety of textures he could achieve in the chorus “He trusted in God” just by careful control of the dynamics.
Just as impressive, though, was Pearlman’s grasp of the entire span of the score. “Messiah” is, above all, a story, and by now Pearlman knows exactly how to pace each section and let one flow into the next so that the great narrative thread of the piece is honored.
The standout among the vocal soloists was baritone Andrew Garland, the unshakable power and dark color of whose voice were ideal. Soprano Mary Wilson sang with lithe tone and keen attunement to the text, though her control of high notes was not always secure. Mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero’s voice was lush and rounded, but in her lower range she seemed almost to speak, rather than sing, the words. Tenor John McVeigh often oversold the drama of his parts, and his voice seemed an uncomfortable fit for the piece.
The orchestra did well, though the clarity of the sound made a few rough patches evident. Garland and trumpeter Robinson Pyle earned a spontaneous outburst of applause for their work during “The trumpet shall sound.” Boston Baroque’s chorus, 21 strong, was magnificent throughout, nowhere more so than in the closing “Amen.” The “Hallelujah” chorus may have better tunes, but the “Amen” hits heights rarely attained elsewhere in the Baroque. It is, you should pardon the expression, a miracle, and will remain so irrespective of how often it returns to light our way during the season.