As part of its holiday season celebration, the New York Philharmonic programmed five repetitions of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” (1743), from December 15 to 19, at the newly-named David Geffen Hall—formerly Avery Fisher Hall and originally Philharmonic Hall—and the second performance, on the 16th, is considered here.
“Messiah” is led by Jane Glover, in her Philharmonic debut, and without insisting on original instruments, for example, she brings to the oratorio a true Baroque expert’s sensitivity to ensuring that well-known highlights are kept in their context, rather than wrenched into the spotlight, center stage, and that all contributions, by orchestra, chorus, and soloists alike, are marked by clarity and presence, with florid passages aptly embellished, as they would be in a Handel opera.
The featured chorus is the Westminster Symphonic Choir, directed by Joe Miller. Westminster’s “And the glory of the Lord” is fluid and forthright, its work also striking in the quiet coloratura of “And He shall purify.” “For unto us a Child is born” emerges as a joyous and precise fugue. The choir brings Part One to a close with a lilting “His yoke is easy, His burthen (burden) is light” allegro and opens Part Two with a quietly commanding “Behold the Lamb of God” largo. “Surely He hath borne our griefs,” “He was wounded for our transgressions,” and “And with His stripes we are healed” makes for a somber and poignant succession of choruses, leading directly into an understated penitent, if also bubbly “All we like sheep” allegro moderato. In the ensuing series of tenor and choral exchanges, Paul Appleby sings his narrative recitatives and airs with feeling and refinement—could he come to be this generation’s answer to Nicolai Gedda?—with the Westminster making determined declarations, with the fugues that follow, the celebratory “The Lord gave the word” and brisk “Let us break their bonds asunder,” crisply delivered. The choir rounds off Part Two with a jubilant “Hallelujah!,” with many standing, as is traditional, though certainly not mandatory, while some of us do not. “Since by man came death” is suitably solemn and joyous by turns.
In her Philharmonic debut, soprano Heidi Stober offers a “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” that is bright and refreshing in all the glory of its A section fioriture and B section legato; a crystalline account of paean “How beautiful are the feet of them;” and an “I know that my Redeemer liveth” that, devout, self-flagellating, and pained as it is, comes off as delightful.
Countertenor Tim Mead discloses a pure and ingratiating sound in “But who may abide the day of His coming?,” demonstrating great flexibility, particularly in the prestissimo B sections and climactic cadenza. “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” is a clear and fluent announcement, first by Mead, then echoed by the choir. “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd” and “Come unto Him,” sung in succession in alto-soprano duet, is lightly and agreeably ornamented by both Mead and Stober. Mead’s “He was despised,” in Part Two, is at once mournful and dignified, its B section, “He gave his back,” contrastingly brisk, and the repeat of the A gently embellished.
Appleby sets the tone for the performance with his opening lyric recitative “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” and florid air “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” both models of bel canto, with some discreet and beautiful ornamentation in the latter. He makes a strong statement with his later “Thou shalt break them.”
Baritone Roderick Williams, another Philharmonic debut artist, makes a fine first impression with the very clean melismas of his recitative “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts.” His next recitative, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” and haunting air “The people that walked in darkness” are restrained, without any loss of resonance, and his “Why do the nations rage so furiously together?” is florid and fiery.
“Messiah” comes to a grand climax with Williams’ “The trumpet shall sound,” assisted by guest trumpeter Karin Bliznik and very much a triumphant melismatic announcement of Resurrection, and Westminster’s spirited “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” with Kent Tritle on organ, followed by a reverent, ultimately formidable “Amen.”
The “Messiah” matinee and the final night share December 18 and 19 with “Oh, What Fun!,” on the 18th, with a matinee on the 19th, featuring bass-baritone Eric Owens and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, guided by Courtney Leiws, in “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” “Sleigh Ride,” selections from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” and a carol sing-along. Visit www.nyphil.org
for further information.