The minute Handel’s Messiah starts, you feel like you’re home. “Comfort ye” are the first words out of the tenor’s mouth in the first aria, and at this point in the holiday season, you need to hear that.
The later moments, however, are where the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Thursday performance, the first of three through Sunday at the Kimmel Center, began distinguishing itself as something much more than a holiday ritual, or, worse yet, a musical rerun. This was a Messiah that constantly asked you to think again at passages that often veer into redundancy — but sometimes at a cost.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin brought this out early in the season, and his soloists Carolyn Sampson, Christophe Dumaux, Jonas Hacker, and Philippe Sly showed no signs of Messiah burnout that is likely to be heard later in the month.
Roughly 80 singers from the Westminster Symphonic Choir managed the customarily big, auditorium-filling moments — but with its lighter young voices scaled back to a more contemplative manner that took some of the crowd-pleasing pomp out of the piece and peered into what the work is really saying.
This was a Messiah with soft endings. Even the “Hallelujah Chorus” ended on a gently voiced chord. Words emerged with such clarity that supertitles weren’t needed (or employed). Choral sections were phrased with extra lyricism so you heard more of the contrapuntal lines than the big vertical chords.
Handel repeated certain phrases to fill out his musical constructions, but Nezet-Seguin made sure they were never sung in the same manner.
Vocal ornaments are often added to solo arias these days, but that practice seemed mostly allowed at the end of arias to put a finer point on what had come before. Meanwhile, the cut-down Philadelphia Orchestra, which numbered around 40, formed a solid floor plan for the arias and choruses.
In effect, you heard more Messiah than usual, often sung with an in-the-moment sincerity that made the music seem new.
Among the soloists, tenor Hacker was a marvel, with superb diction and thoughtful, even profound inflections of the text. Soprano Sampson had partly cloudy diction, but her beautifully focused sound and charismatic way of projecting the emotions behind the text made you long for encores.
Countertenor Dumaux has a solid, forthright sound that has often been lacking in singers of his voice type. And bass-baritone Sly, one of the more interesting singers of his kind out there, brought lean, precise coloring to his arias, though the stentorian “Trumpet shall sound” had him on thin ice.
Of course, there were downsides, as there would be in any strong-mined approach to something as multifaceted as Messiah.
Handel recycled much of the music from past pieces, and in such a wordcentric performance, you heard when music and words didn’t quite fit. Though it’s nice that Nezet-Seguin feels a certain amount of freedom with Handel, he sometimes splintered words and phrases, so much so that in the chorus “All We Like Sheep” I had no idea what effect he was after.
The Westminster choir sometimes lacked solidity. Fast and loud is easy; soft and slow is not.
Tempos could be slow, so much so in the great aria “He was despised” that the music was made to take up more real estate than its contents could fill.
Popular choruses in Messiah were treated with a bit of fussiness, though some often-cut arias, such as “If God be for us” made the strongest possible impression.
With Nezet-Seguin enjoying a great concurrent success in La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, can there possibly be any musical cross-pollination between projects of two such different eras?
Certainly. In Traviata, he cultivated a kind of word-based singing that gives full emphasis to the lyrical aspects of the music but that has a kind of conversational directness. And that’s what I often heard in Thursday’s Messiah.
The approach wasn’t yet fully realized. But maybe next year?