Yannick Nézet-Séguin Leads a Messiah of Awe-Inspiring Greatness

United StatesUnited States  Handel, Messiah: Soloists, Philadelphia Voices (Jonathan Coopersmith, choral direction), Michael Stairs (organ), Davyd Booth (portative organ), Hai-Ye Ni (cello), Harold Robinson (double bass), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 12.12.2015 (BJ)

I do not know offhand just how many performances of Messiah I have witnessed, live or on record over the years, but the number must run into three figures. There was the drastically cut organ-accompanied version in the church next door to the house I lived in as a child. There were any number of 19th-century-ish performances, some led by conductors ranging from the sensitive Adrian Boult by way of Malcolm Sargent to the shamelessly self-indulgent Thomas Beecham, and others where, in school or college, I was myself a member of the chorus. There were the Messiahs John Tobin used to conduct every year in London’s Royal Festival Hall, reawakening “Historically Informed” performance practices that had languished in abeyance for almost two centuries, and often featuring such soloists as Peter Pears and (at a time when the rediscovered countertenor voice still had the potential to rouse an audience to shock and something like horror) Alfred Deller. There were the stylistically middle-of-the-traditional-road accounts associate conductor William Smith used to give Philadelphia Orchestra audiences, with a silent pause before the final phrase of the “Amen” that seemed, to great dramatic effect, as if it would never end.

And out of all this delighted voyage of discovery, including a superbly stylish reading conducted by Stephen Stubbs with the Seattle Symphony three years ago, and a ravishing account on the BIS label by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan that still ranks as the finest I have heard on record, I cannot recall ever having been so enchanted by Messiah as I was by this truly astonishing performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It was an occasion fit to convince you that an acknowledged masterpiece is even greater than you already knew it was. Where Bach is a great composer about God, Handel is a great composer about humankind, and alongside all the grand celebratory effects in the work, it was the profound, often tender humanity in its treatment of the central figure that shone out most steadfastly from the conductor’s conception.

There was nothing routine about his interpretation, but also nothing eccentric. Nézet-Séguin can do things that seem perverse in other conductors’ hands and make them sound totally natural. He fined the tone down for the last measures of several big choruses, including “Hallelujah” and “Amen”: when Nikolaus Harnoncourt did this—again and again—in his recording of Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, the effect was insufferably mannered; in this Messiah, it served to emphasize the inwardness that crucially underlies and informs the surface grandeur. The helter-skelter tempo for “He trusted in God” in Marc Minkowski’s recording comes over as absurd; the chorus evidently trusted in God that He would deliver Him by Fedex, if not e-mail. Nézet-Séguin’s tempo for this chorus cannot have been much less rapid, but there was no sense of rush, and the music had just as powerful a feeling of savagery as any worthy performance draws from the crowd choruses in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

So far as “Historically Informed”-ness is concerned, the rhythmic conventions of Handel’s time were observed, but without being pushed to the level of obtrusiveness, and the music director had managed to discipline the strings to play consistently without vibrato, so that they sounded like period instruments—only in tune. Articulation was unfailingly crisp and lively—this was not a performance to recall the old joke about the viola player who dreamed he was playing in Handel’s Messiah and woke up to find that he really was.

The same may be said about the sterling contribution of the Philadelphia Voices, a professional choir of about fifty people, expertly trained by Jonathan Coopersmith, and capable of clarity and warmth at all dynamic levels from a whisper up. It was possible to feel that Nézet-Séguin asked them to begin one or two choruses at too soft a level, so that, if you didn’t know the music, you could have missed the first few words of the text. But in general the choir’s expert interweaving of contrapuntal parts—as well as the orchestra’s—caused textures too often obscured to resound with welcome vividness. It was also possible to feel—and my wife did—that the very light détaché touch that the conductor brought to “All we like sheep” was inappropriate, but to my ears it created a wonderful contrast with the sustained solemnity of “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” at the end of the movement.

In view of all the changes Handel wrought on Messiah in performances after its premiere, adding and subtracting movements to meet the needs of changing performing forces, the notion of a “complete” Messiah is chimerical. But Nézet-Séguin’s choices among the various alternative versions of this or that movement showed excellent judgment, and almost nothing of true importance got left out. The only exception was his 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. This practice (which Colin Davis followed in his first recording, with that superb mezzo Helen Watts) has the effect of modifying the character of the orchestral passages that then do indeed return after the initial vocal lines. 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.

Bass soloist Matthew Rose duly did this to fine effect, ushering David Bilger’s immaculate trumpet obbligato back in—and that brings me (not before time, you may feel) to the subject of the evening’s vocal soloists. They were, without exception, excellent. Perhaps the most strikingly accomplished of the five was the British tenor Andrew Staples, who combined firmness of line and articulation with beauty of tone and, in his sequence of solos in Part II, a positively heartbreaking sensitivity; the only tiny disappointment was his finessing of a tough high note in that extraordinary valse-macabre-before-its-time, “Thou shalt break them.” His compatriot Rose offered striking strength of tone and some flashing divisions in the bass solos. I felt that, aside from the little flourish already mentioned, he could have done more in the way of embellishment, and it would be a good idea if he avoided a certain mechanical quality in his treatment of words. At “But the Lord shall arise,” for example, he treated the more-or-less throwaway word “the” as if it were as important as the two beside it. This, however, is to pick nits in a generally most impressive piece of singing.

The Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has a lovely soprano voice. Her line was perhaps a shade uneven in Part I, but for the rest of the evening it was impeccably clean and eloquent. Her diction, moreover, was beyond praise: in the middle section of “Rejoice greatly,” for example, at the soft repetitions of the word “peace,” the final consonant was always audible, though never too emphatic, and later on she did just as well with “flesh.” Responsibility for the alto solos was sensibly divided between the superbly rich-toned Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and a fine French countertenor, Christophe Dumaux, whose singing was admirably phrased and idiomatic in its handling of the English text. In that regard, by the way, credit is due to the soloists and chorus for their treatment of words like “counsellor” and “corruption,” free from the usual overemphasis on the final syllable—on disc, Suzuki’s Japanese chorus outshines most native English-speaking ensembles with the naturalness of its “Wonderful, counsellor.”

I came to this Messiah hoping for, and indeed fully expecting, an excellent performance. I could hardly have predicted one so awe-inspiringly great.

Bernard Jacobson

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