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The eternal delight

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
12/19/2007 -  & December 20, 23, 24
George Frideric Handel: Messiah

Celina Shafter (soprano), Margaret Lattimore (mezzo-soprano), Philippe Castagner (tenor), Nathan Berg (bass/baritone)
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummeerfelt (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Nicholas McGegan (conductor)

Manhattan is hardly a mecca for evangelists, but Yuletide does uncover a Sacred Trinity of the Nutcracker, the Messiah and the Hansel-Gretl. Two of these depend on chocolates and gingerbread houses for their attraction. Messiah, though, is not only festive by itself but may be the most thrilling music ever written.

True, the 265-year journey from Dublin’s Fishindale Street to the present has offered such a cornucopia of revisions, editions, arias, choruses and forces (from Handel’s 20-voice choir to some thousand Victorian choristers) that nothing could be considered actually authoritative. One has little doubt that Handel would have loved a larger orchestra, that he might have taken out some of the arias he stuck in later for his castrato friends, and that, good businessman that he was, he would have loved any pop version of the Hallelujah chorus, had they paid him royalties.

Happily, though, the New York Philharmonic used a non-idiosyncratic version by the British musicologist John Tobin. Purists might well object to the manifold cuts (Part III in particular was drastically shortened, jumping straight from “The Trumpet Shall Sound” to “Worthy Is The Lamb”). But the conception was under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, a specialist of the era as leader of the San Francisco Baroque Ensemble., and he made the abbreviated Philharmonic play with 18th Century litheness.

From the very beginning, McGegan led orchestra and the chorus in a brisk, sometimes ebullient pace. While some of the soloists couldn’t quite keep up with him, the entire conception was that of Baroque sounds with a tempo which fit Christmas, not the Easter celebration of Messiah’s intention.

First honors must go to the New York Choral Artists, who, over the past few years, seem to be the city’s chorus of choice. The 60 voices, had the electricity which made everything sing. In their staccato “Lift Up Your Heads”, one felt happiness. When they offered in the first verse of “For Unto Us A Child Is Given”, the soft three words “Prince! Of! Peace!”, one felt a breathy miracle. The inspired Handelian contrasts in each chorus were offered with a seeming spontaneity.

When McGegan accelerated “And He shall purify the sons of Levi”, they took the melismas with more ensemble sensitivity than their preceding soloist, mezzo Margaret Lattimore.

Ms. Lattimore has a fine full voice, but in softer passages, she could barely be heard. Obviously a sensitive artist, she seemed unable to summon up the bleakness of “He was despised”, making it sound like a sad lullaby.

Soprano Celina Shafter, though, has the lyrical voice which could make any 18th Century work glitter. The texture was lustrous, the figurations were impeccable, and her long solo, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth”, was shimmering.

Tenor Philippe Castagner, a last minute replacement for the ailing John Mark Ainsley, has a shimmering voice indeed, and the young Canadian had almost an Irish lilt and gorgeous phrasing. His was the first solo to be heard, and his confident range set a high bar for the others.

Still, the most interesting, both bad and good, was another Canadian, bass-baritone Nathan Berg. When he was good, as in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, his voice was big, and beautifully merged with trumpeter Philip Smith.

But beware Mr. Berg when he scolded us in “Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage?” Forgetting pitch entirely, he exhorted with the frenzy of a Savonarola. “My message,” he seemed to say, “is far too important to be sung.”

It was entertaining, but it wasn’t Handel.

In all, though, the result of McGegan’s Messiah was more ebullient than reverent, where lugubrious holiness was immediately conquered by lusty hallelujahs.

Harry Rolnick



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