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Masterly Messiah

Philharmonia Baroque saves the
season with a perfect Handel

By Philip Collins

NORMAL CONCERT life pales drastically during the holidays, leaving music reviewers with little to do except pick out minute differences in Nutcrackers and Messiahs. Luckily, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's take on Handel's seasonal war horse was anything but a paint-by-the-numbers affair.

Music director Nicholas McGegan is surely one of the most exciting and informed interpreters of the pre-classical repertoire on the scene today. His Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorale are quite close to perfect and quite often prone to greatness. The Messiah they turned out at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto Friday night was enthralling--magic-filled and conceived captivatingly as a dramatic whole.

The resident beauties of the Philharmonia Orchestra shone especially bright, as did also the chorale's, prepared by the orchestra's continuo player, John Butt. The four vocal soloists--Susan Narucki, soprano; Martha Jane Weaver, mezzo-soprano; Robert Breault, tenor; Leroy Kromm, baritone--brought ample abilities to bear, though as a group they were not very well-suited.

Since the Messiah calls for almost no ensemble work among the soloists, the matching of vocal qualities is not as crucial as it could be. Yet the quick succession of vocal trade-offs from one number to the next poses numerous instances where continuity between style and projection would be beneficial.

The chorus, of course, is the true solo vehicle of the Messiah. They are most frequently engaged and integral to each stage of the story's unfolding. One is so accustomed to mediocrity in this work that the Philharmonia Chorale's exemplary renditions seemed heaven-sent. Butt achieved a euphony of tone from his singers that lavished refreshment upon the ears at every turn. Diction was painstakingly illuminated and phrasing attuned to vowel inflection and color.

Rhythmic clarity was also exceptional. In the second part's penultimate climax, "Let us break their bonds asunder," the group executed a syncopated ornament--which I'd never heard before--with élan, and their energy held ecstatically throughout.

During the Hallelujah, the chorale made utmost of the score's plays between forcefulness and lyricism. Especially remarkable was the closing Amen; its sublime atmosphere and textural blends were revelatory. McGegan governed the instrumental commentaries with appreciable reserve; the tutti calls were like giant sighs. The work closed in an exalted realm, one of elevated piousness, and far quieter than usual.

Breault's tenor voice was a glowing asset to the evening, and his opening recitative, "Comfort ye," set a beguiling tone for what was to follow. At once warm and rounded, it also radiated brightly enough to fill the chapel. His adjustment to the buoyant nature of the following song, "Ev'ry valley" was transformational, briskly contrasting the former's legato phrases. Breault's rendering of the famous "Thou shalt break them" brought out another dramatic side; an almost sinister relish emerged when he sang "Thou shalt dash them in pieces."

The expertise of mezzo-soprano Weaver's instrument was most appreciable in its upper reaches, but it came across with resistance in many of the lower and midrange episodes. In "Thou art gone up on high," her virtuosities took flight with impressive dispatch, artfully scaling the song's mellismas while maintaining a fullness of tone. Kromm's solo work improved during the course of the performance and nowhere to better effect than in "The trumpet shall sound," which resonated like a fanfare.

Soprano Narucki's flutelike contributions were distinguished in their brightness and precision. Attentive to melodic detail and facile at ornamentation--"I know that my redeemer liveth," in particular--her renderings emphasized contour to the utmost detail. If her Shepherd's Song came up short in timbral warmth, she more than made up for it in the sweet, dancerly poise of "How beautiful are the feet."

Although largely accompanimental, the orchestra's every moment was infused with vibrancy and exactitude. McGegan's acute treatment of dotted rhythms in the Overture defied gravity; it was anything but plodding. The ensuing Allegro, and all other such contrapuntal episodes, spoke crisply and with collective purpose.

The bowing was impeccably coalesced, and the phrasing breathed in natural accord. Even the fickle antique oboes and trumpets moved agilely and on pitch. The solo playing by principal trumpeter Fred Holmgren during the song "The trumpet shall sound" was miraculous throughout the movement's da capos, ad infinitum.

Special praise was merited by John Butt for his expert continuo playing on organ and harpsichord, as well as his swift commuting between them.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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