United States Handel, Messiah: Layla Claire (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Kenneth Tarver, (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass), The New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director), The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Gary Thor Wedow (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York 18-22.12.2012 (SSM)
With so many Messiahs performed this week, there was little chance of avoiding one, short of staying home and watching “A Chipmunk Christmas” special on TV. The one that interested me the most was the performance to be conducted by the early music specialist, Emmanuelle Haim. I’ve never seen her conduct, and I was curious how she would lead the New York Philharmonic as a specialist in Baroque performance. A few days before the concert, I checked the event on the New York Philharmonic site and there was no mention of her at all. This was a disappointment, but her replacement was Gary Thor Wedow, another Baroque specialist.
There really is something special about the Messiah that captivates the listener no matter how many times it has been heard. Every note moves and every aria satisfies. A frequent complaint about Handel’s arias is that the standard A-B-A form can drag. The arias in the Messiah are all to the point, so much so that one is amazed at their inventiveness. Like his countryman Henry Purcell, Handel wrote so felicitously that many melodies, heard briefly, seem like throwaways.
Wedow’s configuration of a select group of members of the Philharmonic was well-balanced with orchestra, soloists and chorus never drowning each other out. Reduction in the amount of vibrato varied from musician to musician, resulting in an accompaniment which was neither overly Romantic nor strictly Baroque. There were a few miscues, but nothing critical to the performance. The basso continuo was the standard harpsichord and bass supplemented by a virginal for the recitativi secco. This unusual choice of instrument was played by Wedow from a standing position at the podium. I didn’t quite understand the reason why this instrument was used, particularly in such a large venue, and I was surprised I could even hear it. It turned out that it was amplified.
The performers were all top notch and the inclusion of a countertenor, Tim Mead, added a colorful element to the vocal tapestry. The number of young and exceptionally talented countertenors performing today has grown from a time when you could count their numbers on your fingers. Not only did Mead cover the difficult vocal range, but he did so without any sign of strain or discomfort. Layla Claire’s ethereal soprano was meltingly touching. Tenor Kenneth Tarver started off a little weakly, but soon came into his own. Basso Alastair Miles was competent if at times a little unsteady. The pitch-perfect playing of the trumpet by Matthew Muckey deservedly received audience acclamation.
The chorus, vibrant and enthusiastic, gave their all to every number. From the Hallelujah Chorus forward to the final Amen, all the forces played as one, immersed in the intensity of Handel’s fevered scoring. The premature applause midway during the Amen was, in the spirit of the season, smilingly forgiven by the conductor.