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In Review > Concerts and Recitals


Karen Cargill, Christophe Dumaux, Karina Gauvin, Andrew Staples, Matthew Rose | Yannick Nézet-Séguin & Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Voices

THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA HAS PERFORMED Handel’s Messiah yearly since 1961. Sometimes, the personnel have seemed like an afterthought; but this year music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose Canadian experience included singing and conducting Baroque music, boldly took the podium. Five noteworthy Handelian vocalists were engaged, and an attempt made at a narrative, more intimate format, with reduced orchestral numbers. Recitatives were accompanied modestly: Michael Stairs played the big organ and Davyd Booth played the portative organ onstage and so did the recits. Nézet-Séguin made many smart choices, and clearly relished dancing through the bouncier choral numbers. Still, the blended Philadelphia string sound contradicted the rural homespun tone historically informed practice has come to dictate for Part I’s “Pifa.” Sometimes one wanted crisper string articulation, as in “And with his stripes.” Occasionally, Nézet-Séguin seemed too much at pains to stress contrasts in tempos and dynamics; perhaps this reflected a concern for theatricality, especially since these concerts were originally envisioned and advertised as being staged by a director (thrift won out, alas.) Overall, though, once could scarcely imagine a “Big Five” American orchestra delivering much better a Messiah than what an impressed crowd heard December 13.

Karen Cargill’s mezzo—luminous, powerful, dead-on pitch, pliable in divisions—was a joy throughout; she seemed caught up in the need to share in song the joys and sorrows of Christ’s life and message. Her sovereign “He was despised,” a clear highlight, held the crowd at rapt attention. Christophe Dumaux’s finely wrought countertenor sounded lovely at the top of his compass—where little of the oratorio’s alto music lies. Musically impeccable, he proved more convincing at legato flow (in the slow sections of “But who may abide”) than in traversing the daunting “refiner’s fire,” however swift his coloratura. Dumaux’s fine presence and special sound might have yielded something useful in the staged version, but nothing he offered here couldn’t have been supplied by Cargill. Karina Gauvin affirmed her standing as one of today’s great Handelian sopranos, with technical aplomb and glowing, golden sound only occasionally flecked by brittle moments suggesting that her voice has grown beyond this particular assignment. She sang with generalized feeling rather than the word-inhabiting precision of her British colleagues. Still, anyone hearing Gauvin’s ravishing “If God be for us” would marvel that this essential concluding aria is regularly cut in performance. 

Very attractive in demi-tints—such as in “Comfort ye”—the ductile tenor of Andrew Staples turned a bit nasal at full tilt, as in “Every valley.” Sartorially—especially standing next to the Eurochic glamourous Dumaux—he looked like he’d just rolled fully clothed out of bed; but he proved well-prepared with interesting and challenging decoration throughout, and handled the narrative portions of the work particularly well. Staples was assigned “But thou didst not leave,” sometimes the soprano’s province. Bass Matthew Rose—trained at Curtis—really cleaned up, at once sonorous, grandly authoritative and expressive, totally imbued with the style, shakes and all. “The trumpet shall sound”—I’ve never heard anyone cope better live with the fearsome runs on the word “immortality”—rang out thrillingly, thanks also to totally secure playing by David Bilger, a mercy after some recent traversals by wayward Baroque trumpets. Jonathan Coopersmith’s skilled Philadelphia Voices, around forty in number, also represented a change from the usual huge forces deployed hereabouts; they sang commendably throughout.  —David Shengold 

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