In recent years Handel's "Messiah" has been given the Great Cleansing to remove the dross added by everyone from Mozart on. Tempos have been quickened, orchestras have been lightened and overly dramatic dynamics and ritards eliminated in the effort to return to Handel's original concept.
Hearing John Nelson's performance last night at the Kennedy Center, one wonders if the time has not come to call a halt to the purity brigade. His version of "Messiah" was restrained to the point of being muzzled. Tempos, particularly in the first part, were so brisk and lines so crisply drawn that the interpretation came uncomfortably close to the worst baroque mannerisms of rapid-free passages rattling mechanically on.
There were, to be sure, some interesting contrasts in the chiaroscuro tradition of the baroque period.
In the choral sections, particularly, there were some wondrously light passages contrasting with rich dark sounds, their intensity increased by the insistently moving tempo. "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" was beautifully balanced in this respect: The dynamic shifts were exciting without being exaggerated. And the overall light, tripping quality of the first part heightened the heavier sound and more measured pace of the second part.
But far too much of Nelson's approach appealed more to the head than to the heart. Surely Handel is not betrayed if the emotions are touched.
Particularly disturbing were the tightly controlled performances of the soloists. Given the many problems Handel had with singers and the various changes made specifically for them in "Messiah" presentations, one finds it difficult to believe that he would have expected them to sing in the emotionally flat manner that Nelson evoked from his soloists. The one exception was tenor Neil Rosenshein, whose natural dramatic instincts and immense musicality were simply beyond suppressing.
When not rushed, soprano Evelyn Mandac projected well vocally, though she missed much of the text's inner meaning. "I know That My Redeemer Liveth," that soaring song of faith, never left the Earth. Mezzo-soprano Janice Taylor was sensitive to the music's demands but lacked the vocal weight to communicate her perceptions. Baritone Douglas Lawrence used his pleasant voice with intelligence but was rather inflexible in shaping lines.
The real glory belonged to Robert Shafer's Oratorio Society of Washington. They were absolutely superb, delivering everything Nelson asked for and, happily, sometimes more.