“Messiah” might be classical music’s ultimate cover song. It’s one of the few pieces in the canon that is actively performed in a whole range of styles, from stripped-down original-instrument readings to choruses of hundreds and an enormous orchestra. That is simply because the work is old enough that all these versions are legitimately part of its performance tradition.
The National Symphony Orchestra is wise, with its annual “Messiah,” in switching back and forth between bombast and baroque from one year to the next — a great way to maintain a tradition while avoiding routine with this seasonally ubiquitous piece. This year, it was the turn of a leaner “Messiah,” led by the baroque specialist Nicolas McGegan, with all of 30 instrumentalists on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage Thursday evening.
McGegan is an eminently likable artist — a conductor of quiet warmth and sunniness who quietly conveys the sense that he really enjoys what he’s doing. There was nothing dogmatic about his performance — which the NSO played on modern rather than period instruments — but his brisk, athletic tempi kept the piece animated so that it rarely dragged. The operative word was “quiet.” This was an engaging “Messiah,” but never a flashy one, which meant the energy dipped from time to time, particularly in the second half, abridged though it was. But the sense of vitality and even discovery remained from the orchestra throughout.
The nice thing about a smaller-scale “Messiah” is that it lets the vocal soloists feel as though they don’t have to bellow, and the NSO fielded a quartet of singers who all, to their credit, sang with a sense of natural directness. Three were making their debuts with the orchestra, and the lone returnee, the countertenor Jay Carter, made his NSO debut as a last-minute replacement for an ailing colleague in a “Messiah” in 2011.
I am seldom convinced that a countertenor is preferable to a contralto in “Messiah,” given that a countertenor’s voice is not often able to do justice to the rich lows that “O thou that tellest” can bring out in a woman’s voice. Carter sang sweetly, but didn’t quite overturn my prejudice, not least because his florid singing, in “But who may abide,” was smeary and approximate, which is a real flaw for a countertenor, given that this kind of singing usually represents his bread and butter.
Each of the other three singers offered a distinctive, even personal performance. The tenor Thomas Cooley sang with such conviction and assurance that it made up for the sense, at the start of the evening, that his top notes were sometimes getting away from him. He also got better as he went, with strong singing throughout Part Two, including some impressive breath support in his final aria, “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” The soprano Sherezade Panthaki brought a voice that was at once bright, clear and full to arias that took on an appropriately clarion sheen, including the unusual apparition, at the end of “Rejoice,” of a high note offered without much vibrato, which indeed sounded as if it could break glass.
And I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher Purves, the baritone, who brought a doughty, stalwart quality to his music. He flagged a bit in the second part, with “Why do the nations,” but his opening recitative, “Thus saith the Lord,” was delivered with arresting vividness — and even a low note in his final aria, “The trumpet shall sound,” that carried him a hair beyond the depths of his range didn’t diminish its luster.
It was a performance, in short, that felt just as festive as the bewreathed and poinsettiaed and Christmas-treed concert hall (with the organ lighted in red and green) would indicate — “festive” less because it was perfect than because it was exhilaratingly human.
The Washington Chorus, its numbers also reduced for the occasion, responded to the other musicians with a generally elegant, taut sound, and McGegan, time and again, found new doors in the music to unlock.
The concluding “Amen,” rather than a lusty close, started with a gentle hush that put a sense of the devotional back into this thrice-familiar music. It was beautiful, arresting and indicative of the many small dramatic touches that characterized this homely, in the best sense, evening.
“Messiah” repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m.