In Messiah Glover Finds Balance Between Period and Modern

United StatesUnited States Handel: Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Tara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Paul Appleby (tenor), Henry Waddington (bass-baritone), Cleveland Orchestra / Jane Glover (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 6.12.2018. (MSJ)

Handel – Messiah

The Cleveland Orchestra’s Messiah came just days after Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire blazed through the same work with an almost operatic intensity. Jane Glover’s concept of Handel’s masterpiece was more reserved, though arguably her soloists were even more operatic. Glover’s general approach was to smooth out extremes of tempo and dynamic, with a firm limit on expressive inflection.

Yet this was not an old-fashioned, ponderous reading. Glover kept a watchful eye over stylistic issues, assuring that both orchestra and chorus did not use continuous vibrato. She also made sure that phrases ending with brief notes were allowed to trail off in authentic Baroque style, instead of being sustained for full note value at full volume. These touches, along with tempos, made everything flow.

One wonders, though, if Glover decided to concentrate her efforts on the less-well-known parts of the score, because those — especially the bulk of Part Two — popped to life and seemed more dramatically inflected. The familiar moments of Part One seemed considerably less lively, running on minimal shaping and intervention—at times, coming close to running on autopilot. Perhaps Glover felt the famous sequences could more or less take care of themselves. Conversely, the second and third portions were much more engaging and interesting, building to a very satisfying Hallelujah Chorus.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was in fine form, with vibrato stylishly reduced to a minimum to prevent Handel’s high notes from turning screechy. Compared to the Apollo’s Fire concert, Glover used about three times as many singers, though still modest by Victorian festival concert standards. The increased numbers were perfectly judged for Severance Hall, giving ideal fullness without blurring detail. Particularly welcome was director Lisa Wong’s emphasis on inner voices in the contrapuntal choruses, which popped out more clearly than they often do.

Stylistically, the soloists tended to stick out, favoring a more vibrato-heavy style. Soprano Lauren Snouffer brought a big voice and buoyant energy to ‘Rejoice Greatly’. Bass-baritone Henry Waddington had some strong expressive moments, but his impact in ‘The People That Walked in Darkness’ was muted by Glover’s flowing tempo, which did not allow Waddington’s pitches to be discerned through his vibrato. Handel wrote the aria’s strangely chromatic line as a bit of word painting, and the effect should be audible, instead of restlessly pushing the tempo forward.

Mezzo-soprano Tara Mumford and tenor Paul Appleby were able to use their lighter voices effectively, though the amount of vibrato seemed out of sync with the rest of the musicians. Mumford’s highlight was a gentle ‘He Was Despised’, though the unaccompanied phrases are perhaps not the ideal place to embellish the vocal line, which distracted from the drama. In ideal spots in ‘Comfort Ye’, Appleby made some modest but beautiful embellishments. He followed Glover’s energetic lead and made ‘Thou Shalt Break Them’ vividly aggressive, as a preface to the radiant blossoming of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Glover happily opted for the longer version of the Pifa interlude, bringing the strings down to a rapt quietude on the return to the first section. The textures were warmed up throughout with double reeds, joined in the later heroic parts by brass and percussion. For a modern instruments orchestra, striking a balance between long-established traditions and vigorous scholarship, it was an effective compromise, hefty enough to satisfy more modern tastes, yet stylish enough to placate those who want to hear something closer to what the composer originally had in mind. It worked, despite program annotator Hugh MacDonald’s claim that smaller ensembles are ‘ill-equipped’ to serve Handel. Apollo’s Fire proved otherwise, showing once again that the greatest masterpieces can handle a multitude of approaches.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 has been supported by an individual excellence grant from the Ohio Arts Council.

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