The National Symphony Orchestra's grand take on Handel's 'Messiah'

ON A HIGH NOTE: Elza van den Heever shone as one of the soloists in the holiday favorite at the Kennedy Center.
ON A HIGH NOTE: Elza van den Heever shone as one of the soloists in the holiday favorite at the Kennedy Center. (Dario Acosta)
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By Joe Banno
Saturday, December 19, 2009

At last! After years of presenting streamlined, period-sensitive renderings of Handel's "Messiah," the National Symphony has thrown decorum aside this season and chosen to revive the notorious re-orchestration that Eugène Goossens wrote for Sir Thomas Beecham's 1959 recording of the work. Scored for an orchestra of Wagnerian scale, Goossens's version tricks out Handel's delicate chamber orchestration with everything from harp solos to brass fanfares to cymbal crashes.

Thursday's performance (the first of four running through Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall) revealed a creation as unapologetically grand as Beecham's much-lauded, much-reviled recording led one to expect. This is the first "Messiah" I've heard that makes sense of the work being played by a virtuoso orchestra and full-scale chorus in a big hall. Authentic Handel, let's face it, sounds miniaturized in a venue like the Concert Hall. But Handel/Goossens fills every acoustic nook and cranny.

And, a few of the gaudier bits of scoring aside (does "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" really need so much frantic triangle?), what caught the ear most on Thursday was how naturally Goossens has fleshed out what Handel already had on the page -- by cannily weaving lower brass in with the cellos and blending trumpets with the violin line to beef up the strings' carrying power, or by inventing wind scoring that mimics Handel's own florid writing in scores like the "Royal Fireworks Music."

But, thanks to conductor Rossen Milanov's careful balance of sweeping gesture and subtle limning of inner voices, even Goossens's more daring interpolations rarely warranted an incredulous eye roll. And who but a curmudgeon could rail against the battery of percussion that punctuates exultant passages in the "Hallelujah" and "Worthy Is the Lamb" choruses?

Milanov also found a way to minimize Victorian bloat by keeping key parts of the score moving at a fleet baroque pace, while indulging romantically molded phrasing with the Washington Chorus (splendidly prepared by Julian Wachner to produce a majestic and richly blended sound very much in keeping with this version of the score). The quartet of appropriately ample-voiced soloists -- forthright and bell-toned soprano Elza van den Heever, clarion tenor Jason Collins, authoritative bass-baritone Eric Owens and genuine contralto Meredith Arwady -- all ornamented their music in an authentic Handelian manner, while delivering the vocal big guns when called for.

Plenty of other Washington area musical organizations present modestly scaled "Messiahs" every Christmas. Here's one vote to make the Goossens version an NSO tradition.

Banno is a freelance writer.

Handel's "Messiah"

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