NSO makes most of super-sized ‘Messiah’

December 19, 2013

George Frideric Handel conceived his oratorio “Messiah” on a small scale, for a chamber-size orchestra and chorus, with boy choristers on the soprano part. Such a style of performance is not really suited to the vast, acoustically challenging space of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where the National Symphony Orchestra gave its annual performance of “Messiah” on Thursday night. This hall — which holds more than four times as many people as the theater where Handel premiered the work — calls for a larger palette of sound, best provided by the biggest scoring of them all, the in­famous adaptation of Handel’s music by Eugene Goossens.

The National Symphony Orchestra revived this version in 2009, to mark the 50th anniversary of the recording of it led by Thomas Beecham in 1959. Now the NSO has returned to this brilliant solution after three years of often unsatisfying attempts to make a compromise with the original Baroque scoring.

In a sense, the super-sizing of “Messiah” began not long after Handel’s death: Large-chorus oratorio performances in London inspired Haydn to write for such forces in his late oratorios, thinking it was true to Handel’s intentions. What Goossens made of the score has often been ridiculed, especially by historically informed performance (HIP) purists, but it was the logical end of a long development. And, most irritatingly for the purists, it works.

Guest conductor Rossen Milanov wove this broad, multicolored fabric together well, leading with more confidence and less distracting agitation than he showed in 2009. Happily, he made some concessions to the HIP movement, avoiding the lugubrious tempos chosen by Beecham in favor of a generally faster pulse and lighter touch, not always smeared with soupy legato. Transitional moments appeared to catch the orchestra by surprise at times, leading to a few unpleasant sounds, like the botched trumpet introduction to the tenor aria “Ev’ry valley,” and one of the final cadences in the soprano’s recitatives about the birth of Jesus.

The amassed members of the Choral Arts Society of Washington nearly filled the chorister stands and balcony behind the orchestra. They made an appropriately large noise when they needed to — although a little more oomph from the tenor section would have been welcome at a few crucial moments — and also met most of the composer’s demands for agile and fast runs.

Best of all, the NSO fielded a first-class quartet of vocal soloists, all of whom are rising young opera stars with a breadth of voice matched to the extravagance of the orchestration. Soprano Leah Crocetto stood out for her resplendent tone, which filled the hall, able to make the aria “Rejoice greatly” into the showpiece it deserves to be, complete with a showy cadenza. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, a fine Handelian heard at Wolf Trap in 2008 as Ruggiero in “Alcina,” had a molten gravitas in her low range and an admirably suave tone.

Tenor Russell Thomas, the biggest surprise of the Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Verdi’s “I Masnadieri” in September, sang with a ringing clarity, able to produce booming crescendos and compete with the orchestral sweep behind him. Iain Paterson, a British bass-baritone who is becoming known as a Wagnerian, was vocally solid and had the best diction, declaiming his text like an Old Testament prophet. If anything, Milanov should have encouraged the operatic tendencies of his singers even more, because more ornamentation and more sparkling cadenzas would suit the style of Goossens.

Such an operatic approach might shock listeners in our era, who tend to think of “Messiah” as a liturgical work. At the time of its premiere, though, “Messiah” represented a radical secularization of the life of Christ that was opposed by some pious Christians. Jonathan Swift, then dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, almost scuttled the premiere by initially forbidding the cathedral’s choristers from taking part in the performance,because of the perceived crossing of sacred-secular lines.

“Messiah” has come in for some hard knocks, from me and other critics, but this has less to do with the quality of the work and more to do with the exhausting annual overexposure it receives. The NSO is right to make its performance of this most overdone of the holiday chestnuts stand out from the rest, and the big canvas of the Goossens version — with its reharmonizations, harp twinkles, triangle rolls, cymbal crashes and bass lines reinforced by tuba and contrabassoon — is just so much fun that it is impossible to resist.

(Note: Since Handel wrote “Messiah” for a charity event in Dublin, it is fitting that the NSO partners each year with the Capital Area Food Bank. This local organization, which provides food to the needy, is accepting donations of food in the lobby before each performance.)

The performance will be repeated Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

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