WASHINGTON, D. C.-With the many performances of Handel’s Messiah around the world, each of them have a unique quality all of their own. From the small church choir to the professional choir, these performances all provide their fabric to the tapestry of a masterwork that has touched the hearts of many for centuries. The presentation at the Washington National Cathedral was a perfect example of the variation in performance that still exist, even for a venerable work as Handel’s most famous oratorio. Listeners filled the entire cathedral to hear the beloved choral piece that for many mark the beginning of the Christmas season.
Michael McCarthy led a performance that was a fine balance between being ‘period informed’ yet still papable to the ear of a listener who may not be astute to Baroque performance practice. Opening with the overture, McCarthy conducted in a stately tempo, bringing out the dotted rhythms of the movement, which is in the manner of the French overture. The orchestra played with a great sense of ensemble, with each phrase not only being heard, but seen also in the embachur. Boy and girl sopranos in the choir framed the work with an angelic quality throughout, further noting the clarity and sheer beauty of the singers. Adult men composed of countertenors, tenors and basses blended uniformly with the upper voices. Notably, the countertenors of the choir sang with a beautiful legato that was often at the center of the core choral sound.
In Comfort Ye, tenor Rufus Müller masterfully set the tone for the subject matter at hand, singing with a great sense of conviction and urgency. His vocal ornaments were always with reason, noted particularly on the word “straight” in which he removed the vibrato and on the word “rough” where he added an ornament in the manner of a succession of notes, that coveyed the idea effectively. Müller’s vocal presence was one that was not only heard, but felt. Mr. Müller was in fine form, possessing a tenor with a wonderful, lyric quality, yet a wonderful heft that provided substance throughout the performance, especially in Thou Shalt Break Them, which was the perfect vehicle for his voice. In Thus Saith the Lord, bass Eric Downs’ rendering was emphatic, yet the vocal production lacked a resonance that was well-focused. Mr. Downs championed Why Do the Nations, displaying a great flexibility in his vocal range, and a pleasing lower register. Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson sang with a vocal warmth that has inevitably become her trademark. In the aria O Thou That Tellest, Ms. Simpson brought a jubilance to the work, that was matched by the McCarthy’s lilting tempo. Her moving rendering of the aria He Was Despised transported the listener to the foot of the cross, with her voice caressing the ear like a blanket of comfort. Soprano Gillian Keith complimented the performance with a radiant vocal presence. The recitatives that preceded the chorus Glory to God were wonderfully sung by Ms. Keith. Her emphatic delivery embodied the joy that was apparent for such an important announcement. Rejoice Greatly was a brilliant showpiece for the soprano. Sung in 4/4, Ms. Keith championed the demands of the vocal melismas throughout. I Know That My Redeemer Liveth provided a contrast for Ms. Keith in which she displayed a different emotional depth that was quite remarkable.
There were many interesting things about this performance. The tempos were quite brisk. In the joyful choruses such as O Thou That Tellest and For Unto Us, the faster pace was conceivable. But in the mood change of the choruses that were appropriate more so to the suffering and death of Christ such as Behold the Lamb of God and Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs, deliberately slower tempos may have assisted in providing a more recognizable mood change from the previous joyfulness of the oratorio.
A grand space, angelic choristers, stellar soloists, fine orchestra and a musical conductor ushered in the holiday season, in what has become one of Washington’s beloved holiday traditions.