Solid performance makes the Messiah a "must-see"
Handel and Haydn Society.
Symphony Hall, Boston.
Conducted by Christopher Hogwood.
Dominique Labelle, soprano; Catherine Robbin, contralto; David Daniels, alto; David Gordon, tenor; Daniel Lichti, bass.By Hur Koser
The Handel and Haydn Society set off for their 142nd annual production of George Frederic Handel's Messiah last Friday in the Symphony Hall, with conductor Christopher Hogwood. This year's production features the 1750 version of Messiah.
It seems that Handel's decision to write the piece was stimulated by an invitation to participate in a series of oratorio concerts benefitting Dublin charities in 1741. Handel composed the oratorio in just 24 days during August and September of the same year, using a libretto by a wealthy squire, Charles Jennens. Handel conducted the premiere of Messiah himself for an enthusiastic audience of 700 in Dublin's Music Hall on April 13, 1742. For that concert, gentlemen were asked to come without their swords and ladies without the fashionable hoops that spread their skirts, "as it [would] greatly increase the Charity, by making room for more company." Indeed, the concert was a great success, even though Handel had very limited resources at his disposal.
Handel also conducted the London premiere of the piece at Covent Garden on March 23, 1743. Later, in 1750, Handel began conducting Messiah annually at London's Foundling Hospital, again, for charity purposes. It is interesting to note that for each performance, Handel had to modify the work according to the abilities of the singers or the availability of instruments. The 1742 version, for instance, had to be performed by strings and trumpets only; later, Handel added oboes and bassoons to the orchestra, as well as the organ and the timpany. By the time Handel died, there were quite a few different versions of Messiah being performed in England. The 1750 version that H&H is performing this season was first arranged and recorded by Christopher Hogwood (he used the original Foundling Hospital materials for 1754); it is specifically intended to reflect the form and experience of those concerts in Handel's lifetime.
This is mostly because Christopher Hogwood is one of the leaders of Historically-Informed Performance, a notion that intends to give audiences a feel of how a certain Baroque or Classical piece might have sounded like in the time it was composed. These performances use historical instruments and appropriately sized ensembles to produce this unique effect of originality. Both as the Artistic Director of H&H and the founder of the Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood is known for his "historically scrupulous ways." A side note: Hogwood is actually careful to preserve more than just the content and the style of the pieces. For instance, one of the best known and moving parts of Messiah is the "Hallelujah" chorus. Indeed, in recent past, the audience used to rise for the opening of this section, which, however, did not occur in Handel's time. For the H&H performances of Messiah, Hogwood cordially invites the audience not to stand, since this often prevents listeners from hearing the opening bars of the "Hallelujah" chorus.
Not all the performances of Messiah by the Handel and Haydn Society have been "historically-informed," though. When the group gave the American premiere of the complete Messiah in 1818, or when they started performing the work annually in 1854, little emphasis was placed on how the 18th century performances sounded like. In fact, in 1857, the Handel and Haydn Society used the largest chorus in its history (700 singers) to perform Messiah - something Handel never had the chance to try in his lifetime. This season's chorus, however, is more modest; the 33-member chorus in this performance reflects the size of the choral forces singing in the Foundling Hospital concerts in 1750.
This year's production of Handel's Messiah is, by no doubt, a "must-see" event. One of the greatest contributions to the glamour of the performance comes from the soloists themselves. Soprano Dominique Labelle, for instance, is so touching in the aria "Rejoice greatly" that the entire Symphony Hall is transformed at once into a dramatic scene. Tenor David Gordon's voice is delightful, and contralto Catherine Robbin is sincere and deep. Messiah actually contains quite challenging voice leading techniques for the soloists, such as frequent high jumps and sustained arpeggios. Nevertheless, last Saturday, the solo sections, as well as the chorus, were simply flawless. The most striking part of the concert was the performance of the male alto David Daniels. Normally a countertenor, Daniels possesses voice range that is quite exceptional, and he seems to have mastered it absolutely. It is a mesmerizing experience to hear his enchanting voice ring inside the Symphony Hall.
H&H will be performing the 1750 version of Handel's Messiah in Symphony Hall through Dec. 10. It is definitely once-in-a-lifetime experience, and there is little doubt that Messiah is one of the most delightful holiday traditions in Boston.