Evergreen of Evergreens, Oratorio of Oratorios, forever and ever! Would Handel’s “Messiah” be as ubiquitous if the composer had, in summer 1741, been handed a different biblical life to set to music, and slotted different text into the tunes we know as “I know that my Redeemer liveth” or “He was despised?” No, our yearly “Messiah” mania is the result of some of Handel’s most inspired music (and a songful scriptural libretto) entwined with human yearning for ritual, which seems to be strongest around the winter solstice. Perhaps some primal part of us needs a reminder that the light will return, and in “Messiah,” it always does.
Friday night at Symphony Hall, Handel and Haydn Society’s spry “Messiah” with conductor Bernard Labadie illuminated yet another reason why the oratorio reigns as it does. It invites listeners to connect with it, whether through religious belief or, like me, just love of music: to join the chorus in spirit, if not in actual song. Labadie and H+H’s performance didn’t so much invite as it urged.
Seated on a piano bench atop a podium, Labadie conducted sans baton; this has been his practice since undergoing aggressive treatment in 2014 for stage IV lymphoma, which caused him to lose 50 percent of his muscle mass. This doesn’t stop him from being extremely animated on the podium, conveying a mix of collegial authority and childlike glee. The program noted that he prepared the 30-voice chorus himself, which proved a match made in heaven; dynamics, counterpoint, expression were all confident and crisp. Songlike qualities in the string parts were also emphasized.
Conducting from memory, he favored brisk tempi, and often concluded arias without lingering on the final chord. Rather than plunging headlong into the chorus’s most cathartic moments, such as the beginning of “Hallelujah!”, he tended to dial back the intensity, build to a peak, and then unleash. At some points that caused a loss of momentum, at others it was an effective device.
Before the concert, an H+H representative informed me that countertenor Iestyn Davies was battling a chest infection, and an e-mail on Saturday morning announced that he would withdraw from the two remaining performances. His replacement was announced as mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, who was also featured in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Oratorio this weekend. Friday evening, Davies’s velvety voice may not have had as much punch as usual, but never lacked in purity or clarity. Labadie assisted him, putting a damper on the orchestra during his solos.
The other soloists were all exceptional, but bass-baritone Philippe Sly was the evening’s standout; his first accompagnato practically smoked with brimstone, and his awesome power never waned. His “The trumpet shall sound” was everything that aria should be. Soprano Lucy Crowe’s arias glimmered with warmth and love, and tenor James Gilchrist’s solos in the second part trembled with an intensity of personal pathos more often seen in a “Winterreise” than a “Messiah.”
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first complete performance of “Messiah” in the United States, given by H+H on Christmas Day 1818. Are another 200 years in the works? None can say, but as long as there continues to be a Handel and Haydn Society, it seems certain that “Messiah” will reign every year in some form. In a world of dizzying uncertainties, that feels like comfort.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, Friday.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.