Three Years Later, Nézet-Séguin’s Retake of Messiah

19/12/2018

Handel, Messiah: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Christophe Dumaux (countertenor), Jonas Hacker (tenor), Philippe Sly (bass-baritone), Westminster Symphonic Choir (director: Joe Miller), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 8.12.2018. (BJ)

Three years ago I hailed the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s corresponding performance as ‘a Messiah of Awe-Inspiring Greatness’. This time around? Well, it was very good.

It didn’t actually start that well. I felt a certain absence of magic up to the end of Part I. The Westminster Symphonic Choir (a different group from last time) certainly matched the restrained dynamics the conductor again demanded, but restraint seemed to have declined into mannerism, and another disappointment was the less consistent quality of this year’s solo quartet. I hasten to explain that the two upper voices – the well-focused and eloquent alto of Christophe Dumaux (the only solo holdover from 2015), and the dulcet tone and sparkling articulation of Carolyn Sampson, who is probably the finest exponent in the world today of baroque soprano parts – were beyond praise, but they overmatched their low-voice colleagues by a considerable margin.

Jonas Hacker delivered the tenor with undeniable competence but not much drama or intensity. As for bass-baritone Philippe Sly, his strong and darkly attractive voice was impaired by spasmodic out-of-tune explosions in this Part I. His work in Part III raised a question of some musicological interest. Back in 2015 I protested against the conductor’s formally damaging decision ‘to perform the repeat of the main section in “He was despised” dal segno rather than, as the score directs, da capo‘ – in other words, having the voice return immediately without orchestral preface after the middle section. When Handel does write dal segno, as in ‘The trumpet shall sound’, it opens the way for the singer to introduce the repeat with something fresh and dramatic. It is noteworthy that, while that stirring air was correctly given in the earlier performance, this time, with David Bilger’s characteristically brilliant trumpet obbligato going for it, it was shorn of middle section and dal segno, and I could only conclude that the excision was an act of mercy offered by Nézet-Séguin to both the audience and the singer, whose line, tone, and intonation were by this point in the proceedings going woefully awry.

Despite the somewhat anaemic impression left by Part I, after intermission the whole atmosphere of the performance was suddenly transformed. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, while still kept at a lower dynamic level than usual, immediately restored all the magic and mystery I had been missing, and for the rest of the evening Messiah sounded much more like the revelatory work it had been under the conductor’s hands three years earlier. There were one or two disappointments, such as the omission once again of one of my favorite parts, the alto and tenor duet ‘O Death, where is thy sting’, but there were also many superb moments, including the conductor’s surprising and thought-provoking fining down of choral and orchestral tone at the very end, and Carolyn Sampson’s surpassingly moving account of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. Altogether, the complaints I have noted notwithstanding, this Messiah was gripping and convincing enough that I shall happily come back for the next helping whenever the Maestro feels the urge to serve it.

I cannot, however, conclude without offering a rather tendentious observation. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is as far from being the best bit of Messiah as Messiah, for all its outsize repute, is from being Handel’s greatest work: at a rough computation, I would adjudge some two dozen or so of his operas and his other oratorios to outshine it for expressive impact and sheer creative mastery. It is accordingly always amusing for an unreconstructed Brit like me to watch an American hall-full of concertgoers leap to its feet the moment the first strains of ‘Hallelujah’ burst on the air. The origin of this almost universal practice is purely a matter of protocol: King George II was apparently moved by the sound of this chorus to rise to his feet – and of course when the King is standing it is utterly impermissible for us proles to remain in our seats.

For me it is a similar irony to that experienced in watching any number of American college commencement gatherings marching to the sound of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, Elgar’s heartfelt tribute to the British monarchy that most of their fellow countrymen (sorry – ‘countrypersons’) are so proud of having expelled from the body politic.

But after all, consider Isabel Boncassen, that charming character in The American Senator whom Trollope transfers by her marriage into the British aristocracy, or, coming closer to our own time, think of the Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. As the Artist Formerly Known As Meghan Markle might put it, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.

Bernard Jacobson

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