Music review: Philharmonia Baroque ‘Messiah’ at Disney Hall
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We date ourselves through history. Whether it’s a textbook, historical novel, costume-drama movie or early-music performance practice, the context is the present. Neither Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 “Spartacus” nor Starz TV’s “Spartacus” tells us anything useful about the ancient world, but they offer as good an indication as any that manners have changed for the worse in the last half century.
Twenty years ago, Nicholas McGegan recorded Handel’s “Messiah” with his Philharmonia Baroque in what felt like a revelatory performance of an overly familiar work. Tuesday night, McGegan and his Bay Area period-instrumental ensemble brought their current “Messiah” to Walt Disney Concert Hall for the first of two performances. Two decades in the life of an oratorio that has been a repertory staple for nearly 270 years -– it is the only Baroque work that has never been out of fashion -– shouldn’t make all that much difference. But it can.
That older McGegan “Messiah” does, in fact, hold up well. It is lively. It makes its musicological points with infectious glee. And it featured some timeless singing, especially in the deeply affecting soprano solos by the incomparable Lorraine Hunt.
The performance at Disney had a different, deeper character. No longer making points, McGegan now was content in simply pointing out the musical wonders of Handel’s score. It was a mellow “Messiah,” richly expressive, never exotic. The lessons of musicology have been absorbed into a complex and rich new performance practice.
But McGegan also stood from apart a flashier new generation of Handelians. The most recent recording of Handel’s oratorio is by Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell’s Cleveland early-music group. A bright-and-bushy-tailed performance, it boasts extravagant ornamental bling and comes with an accompanying DVD in which Sorrell casts the “Messiah” in latter-day New Age language. At a different extreme, the French conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, in her memorable debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last month, imparted a sense of Handel so extraordinarily vital that the composer seemed to walk still among us.
It was, of course, McGegan who once made his name as the liveliest early-music conductor on the scene, and he was still full of zest Tuesday. But he was here less concerned with the celebratory religiosity of Handel’s oratorio than its more universal conveyance of humanity and the overcoming of suffering.
We have no way of knowing whether Handel would have recognized this sort of performance. The old strings, oboes, bassoons, organ, harpsichord, sedate timpani and impossible valveless trumpets of the Philharmonia Baroque make a smoothly blended sound. The Philharmonia Chorale of two dozen sang with precision: Nearly every word could be understood; intricate inner lines could be followed.
McGegan likes brisk tempos. He eagerly embraces Handel’s descriptive music, whether describing sheep gone astray, nations that furious rage or man knowing sorrow and grief. His angels were like Leonardo’s angels, namely humans. The “Hallelujah” chorus was not a great climax but a punctuation in a drama of life experiences. This was maybe the least dogmatic and most universal “Messiah” I have ever heard.
The oratorio begins with the promise of comfort in an accompanied recitative. Thomas Cooley, a powerfully expressive tenor, suggested not contentment but the quest for an incandescent succor. Soprano Dominique Labelle was most affecting in “I know that my Redeemer Liveth,” dramatically approached with shining hope but uncertainty. Countertenor Daniel Taylor’s uncertainty was too often pitch or line, but he was properly frightening in “He was Despised.” Nathaniel Watson was the reliable but not forceful baritone.
Handel fashioned his final “Amen” chorus as an antique, the counterpoint glowing like that of the gorgeous late Roman Renaissance. McGegan resisted the temptation to turn that “Amen” into the Romantic statement of triumph it usually and inappropriately becomes. Amens, instead, flew by as a celebration of the beauty of the moment. A ‘Messiah,’ right for today, is one in which we have no idea of what tomorrow will bring. RELATED:
-- Mark Swed