Handel's "Messiah" is inexhaustible, and so apparently is the pipeline of British conductors with fresh ideas about it. Harry Christophers, the leader of the early music vocal ensemble The Sixteen, was this year's guest conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society's annual performances at Symphony Hall. This was the society's 154th consecutive season of "Messiah," a number that must be impressive even to Britons. Christophers's reading was a revelation, no more so than last year's by harpsichordist Laurence Cummings, but in a different direction.
Christophers pays less attention than many early music specialists to the sound of the orchestra, to exploring textual theories, or to devising new ornamentation. His focus was on the beauty and drama of the vocal line, which he gave breath and breadth. He conducted from memory, and his gestures, fluid and mostly horizontal, were generally directed at the 33-voice chorus. They responded with enthusiasm, solid tone, and dramatic fervor. They made a really nasty crowd in "He Trusted in God," for example, as they "laughed Him to scorn." And the final "Amen" was glorious, a great sonic tapestry that Christophers seemed to weave in the air. If he held onto the last note until it brought on applause, there's nothing wrong with that. No one knew better than Handel that "Messiah" is part show business.
For his first appearance with H&H in Symphony Hall, Christophers brought along four soloists from Great Britain. Soprano Cyndia Sieden sang easily but lacked angelic sweetness, and managed a bit stiffly the florid parts of "Rejoice greatly." Mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers did not impress particularly until "He was despised," which became a transporting moment, thanks to her varied dynamics, sincere delivery of the text, and sheer presence.
Tenor Tom Randle's singing of "Thou shalt break them" was dramatic, but the opening and middle tenor numbers call for a lighter, purer sound, and Randle's tone was often spread. When he wasn't singing, furthermore, he had an annoying habit of mouthing the words to the choruses and other solos. Christopher Purves was solid in the bass solos, with thrilling interpolated high notes. Generally, ornamentation was rare and lacked originality.
If anything could improve the H&H "Messiah", it would be for the chorus to sing from memory. The blend and responsiveness would improve, and the few micro-glitches in difficult runs - "His yoke is easy" never sounds easy - would disappear. It intensifies an audience's involvement to see the chorus without a thicket of scores. Besides, they must know this music by now.