Handel's "Messiah" is a regular fixture of the holiday concert season, but somehow it sounds different every time depending on who is conducting, who trained the chorus...
Handel’s “Messiah” is a regular fixture of the holiday concert season, but somehow it sounds different every time depending on who is conducting, who trained the chorus, who’s got those tricky solos, and lots of other subtle issues. In Handel’s own day, the oratorio changed a lot from performance to performance, too, as he recast various arias to fit the talents of available soloists, and moved various pieces of the “Messiah” puzzle to and fro.
The Seattle Symphony’s current version is pretty much the full oratorio as it has been handed down to us, minus one aria (“Thou art gone up on high”) and with some curious trimming (of the da capo portion of “He was despised”). Conductor Gerard Schwarz restored some elements that were cut in the past, creating a production a bit longer than last year’s but one more likely to please Handel fans.
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The Seattle Symphony Chorale, prepared for this program by assistant conductor Christian Knapp, sang with vigor, snappy enunciation and a fair amount of precision. There were some nice surprises, like the sopranos who went for the high C just when you always feel there should be a high C, near the end of the chorus “He trusted in God.” (Handel wrote a G instead, perhaps because his sopranos did not sail the high Cs.)
The scaled-down baroque version of the orchestra had trouble getting together in the violin passagework of “For Unto Us a Child is Born” but rallied as the performance went on. Schwarz paced this reading perfectly, cueing choral entrances and instrumental phrasing, keeping the momentum forward without hurrying.
Some balances could have been better. There’s too much organ (especially in that registration) in the soprano solos, for example, particularly in the midsection of the aria “Rejoice greatly.”
The big disappointment lay with the soloists: three of them sounded ill at ease in this repertoire. Soprano Ying Huang’s sweet voice had problems sustaining the vocal line, and sounded stylistically off; the mezzo-soprano, Charlotte Hellekant, pressed her lower register hard for more volume, and baritone James Maddalena lacked the weight and the clarity so desirable in the bass arias.
Tenor Karl Dent’s performance was a beacon of oratorio excellence. Here is a singer who knows how to underscore the meaning of the words; who sings with utter clarity and tonal beauty, with intelligent but never excessive ornamentation. What a pleasure to hear a master at work.
Melinda Bargreen: firstname.lastname@example.org