Summoned to Heaven by Refreshing “Messiah”

United StatesUnited States  Handel, Messiah: Shannon Mercer (soprano), Laura Pudwell (mezzo-soprano), Ross Hauck (tenor), Kevin Deas (bass), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Stephen Stubbs (conductor and harpsichord), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 16.12.2012 (BJ)

The prospect of a Seattle Symphony Messiah conducted by Stephen Stubbs promised, I thought, a performance of uncommon quality. The reality in no way disappointed. Of all the dozens of Messiahs I have witnessed over the years, including the pioneering “Historically Informed” performances that John Tobin used to conduct every year in London’s Royal Festival Hall back in the 1950s, with such luminaries as Alfred Deller and Peter Pears often among the soloists, what Stubbs achieved was in almost every respect the finest.

“Almost”? Well, it’s true that the idea of a “complete” or “authentic” Messiah is chimerical, since Handel himself was accustomed to include or drop movements according as the qualities of the singers on hand permitted or required. But the necessity to finish within two hours and a half, owing perhaps to the exigencies of symphony orchestra labor contracts, led to some regrettable omissions especially in the third part of the oratorio. I can bear with equanimity the absence of one or two numbers, such as the soprano aria “If God be for us,” but the excision of the middle section and da capo (or rather dal segno?) of “The trumpet shall sound,” and of that wonderful little alto and tenor duet, “O death, where is thy sting,” with its ravishing close harmony between the voices, was a serious deprivation.

But that is all I have to complain about. The singing of the Seattle Symphony Chorale was superb, the tenor section in particular covering itself with glory, and under Stubbs’s expert hand the orchestra played with comparable polish and panache. Vibrato in the strings was stylishly held down to an absolute minimum. Alexander White played his big trumpet obbligato impeccably, Joseph Adam was a tower of strength on both harpsichord and organ (Stubbs himself also contributed some accompaniments on a second harpsichord), and Alexander Velinzon and Walter Gray added graceful solos and accompaniments on violin and cello.

The “Historically Informed Performance Practice” movement is still, after more than half a century of research and experimentation, a work in progress. The most impressive thing about Stubbs’s direction was its total naturalness and freedom from the doctrinaire. In the early days of the movement, a chorus like “Behold the Lamb of God,” and even a well-known aria like “The trumpet shall sound,” were often subjected to distracting extremes of supposedly stylish rhythmic modifications, which would from time to time lead to unexpected bouts of almost jazzy syncopation. This performance, however, while fully “informed,” never indulged in such questionable excesses. There was not a single tempo from beginning to end of the afternoon that did not seem inevitable, nor a single rhythm that attracted inappropriate attention. The conductor’s choice among the various alternative versions of some numbers was also well judged: it included the duet version of “He shall feed His flock” and the full version of “Why do the nations,” both surely preferable to the alternatives; the common-time version of “Rejoice greatly,” which I simply like better than the 12/8 variant; and, perhaps surprisingly, the long version of the Pifa (which we used to call the Pastoral Symphony)—I wonder whether taking the short version instead might have saved enough time to allow the inclusion of “O death, where is thy sting”?

Among both the chorus and the soloists, diction was both clear and refreshingly idiomatic: the final syllables of such words as “counsellor” and “vessel” were properly treated as throwaways, rather than being unnaturally stressed. (“He was despised” might perhaps have benefitted from similarly idiomatic treatment.) Those soloists moreover, were an unusually accomplished and well-matched quartet. There were some effective but never obtrusive embellishments of the vocal line. Local favorite Ross Hauck set the ball rolling with a tellingly nuanced accounted of the opening tenor recitative, and went on to sing his arias in Part the Second with profound feeling. Kevin Deas revealed a bass voice of splendid solidity and beautifully focused tone, hitting his high notes squarely on pitch, and quickly overcoming a slightly vague start on his florid lines. Shannon Mercer was magical both in her early pastoral episode and in her big last aria, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” And Laura Pudwell, if a shade light of voice to do full justice to the pathos of “He was despised,” worked up an appropriate pitch of vehemence at “He hid not His face from shame and spitting,” and sang throughout with all her customary skill and artistry.

In an interview printed in the program, Maestro Stubbs laid apt stress on the dramatic aspect of Handel’s music. This was happily borne out in the performance. For their first entry in the work, at the chorus “Glory to God,” he posted the trumpets in a box high above the edge of the stage, so that they sounded like a summons from Heaven. And at every appropriate moment—in “All we like sheep,” for instance, the hush for the words “and the Lord hath laid on Him”; and again, in “Since by man came death,” the sudden stress on “death” and “die”—the portent of the text was unfailingly laid bare. In the tenor’s “Thou shalt break them,” too, the careening orchestral part perfectly realized the character of the aria, which is, surely, a valse macabre before its time.

Traditions take time to grow into place. But it is certainly to be hoped that a Stubbs Messiah may swiftly be established as an essential part of the Seattle Symphony’s December offerings.


Bernard Jacobson