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A Merry Crispness From a Happy New Ear

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
12/17/2008 -  & December 18, 19, 20, 2008
George Frideric Handel: Messiah (To texts from the Holy Bible, arranged by Charles Jennens)
Sunhae Im (Soprano), Andreas Scholl (Counter-tenor), Jörg Dürmüller (Tenor), Detlef Roth (Baritone)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Director), New York Philharmonic, Ton Koopman (Conductor)

Ton Koopman (© Marco Borggreve)

Since belief in a single God is both restrictive and boring, New York is fortunate each December in letting us choose from countless Messiah figures in countless venues. New York’s Oratorio Society always puts on a good show, church choirs from Staten Island to the Bronx offers its congregations the chance to rise to their “Hallelujah” choruses (King George II may have believed in Father and Son, but this originated from his Holy Gout).) I suppose garage and punk bands are offering some version of Messiah, and down in Manhattan’s East Village, a discount store is getting in the spirit with a sign on the window proclaiming, “All We Like Cheap!”

Choosing a single performance was easy this year, since I have always admired Ton Koopman, and wondered why he had never shown up on New York radar. His Amsterdam Baroque Ensemble has not played here, so far as I know. And Mr. Koopman is represented mainly in his superb Bach cantata recordings, his own organ and harpsichord playing, and some fine Haydn symphonies on period instruments.

Messiah doesn’t look for “authentic” performances, since, for years after its 1741 Dublin premiere, the orchestras, choruses, soloists and venues of the “hit musical” changed with the circumstances. At any rate, few orchestras play the complete work, and not even Mr.Koopman played the tenor-counter-tenor duet “Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting?” or the following short choral piece. But since Mr. Koopman was making his debut with the Phil, it would be interesting to see how the players – who have been noticeably stodgy and draggy in Lorin Maazel‘s Brandenburgs – would turn out.

New Yorkers have four more chances to wonder no longer. Maestro Koopman created a Messiah which was bouncy, sharp, light, even light-hearted. It was obviously the opposite of the legendary Victorian performances with a cast of thousands (and numerous cuts), but he was also many grades above the usual solemn, stuffy church performances. Mr. Koopman’s Messiah had a briskness, a staccato sharpness, where even the grand choruses were singing with honest delight.

Part of the orchestral lightness was a simple trick. The strings (about half the regular size, I assume), played with little vibrato, and the bows seemed lower on their instruments. The result was a sound a bit thin initially, but which offered the Baroque color, without losing the resonance of Avery Fisher Hall. The Westminster Chorus, numbering 60 (Mr. Koopman works with a third less in Amsterdam) not only sang with equal crispness – a Merry Crispness – but articulated with a Baroque sound. In “Surely He Hath Borne out griefs”, the notes were staccato. In “All We Like Sheep”, the words were so light that one almost saw gamboling sheep on the horizon. Most fun of all was dear old “Hallelujah”, with trills and roulades galore from the chorus.

The delicate color of chorus and orchestra was sometimes self-conscious (the nuances for each word of the final chorus, for instance), but the ever-energetic Mr.Koopman kept the rhythms solid and upbeat.

The four soloists were more than adequate. Unfortunately, they had to sit at a corner of the stage like errant schoolchildren. For each recitation or aria, instead of rising to the occasion, they would walk with stately dignity from 11 to 13 steps before starting. I am certain that can be fixed easily enough.

Most interesting was that for each aria with a repeat, the soloists could improvise for a measure or two Baroque style. They all managed this with professional ease. Mr. Handel sometimes used counter-tenors (castrati would not be in an oratorio), and the distinguished Andreas Scholl gave some rousing accounts. The fine Korean soprano Sunhae Im has a sensitive voice in her mid-range, though was reaching for the high notes. Then again, I was most moved by her recitative, “There were shepherds”, with a marvelous cello obbligato by an unnamed soloist. In “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, Detlef Roth was stentorian in his duet with trumpeter Philip Smith.

The result was a Messiah which, as always, is hummable and whistleable, but in this case Maestro Koopman had taken a New York orchestra and chorus and, with a an almost antic beat, offered an oratorio where joy overcame reverence, and where veneration played second fiddle to vivacity.

Ton Koopman’s website

Harry Rolnick



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