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Music Review

'Messiah' is served up as timeless as ever

Email|Print| Text size + By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / December 17, 2007

That indestructible vehicle of yuletide spirit known as Handel's "Messiah" came in for some unusual criticism this year, as the New York Times published an article by the scholar Michael Marissen, provocatively arguing that, in its time, "Messiah" expressed a strain of theological anti-Judaism driven by the work's text, assembled by Charles Jennens, and amplified by Handel's music. Marissen suggested the piece was full of a Christian triumphalism historically directed against Jews (and deists) for refusing to recognize Christ as savior. In this account, even the iconic "Hallelujah" chorus emerges as a kind of tuneful schadenfreude, cheering the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

Marissen's article drew a hailstorm of letters when it was published in April, and his argument has been challenged by other Handel scholars. Most "Messiah" fans, though, do not seem to be losing sleep over the matter; the work this season has been as ubiquitous as ever. A large crowd turned out for the second of two annual performances by Boston Baroque on Saturday night in Jordan Hall. Given this ensemble's proud advocacy of performance informed by his torical scholarship, one might have expected at least a passing mention of the recent debate in the program notes, but there was not a word.

As for the performance, this "Messiah" justified its reputation as one of the city's most reliable. Martin Pearlman has led the piece dozens of times before, and, conducting from the harpsichord, he moved the work along with brisk efficiency. The orchestral playing had an intimate quality, graceful on its feet, transparent in its textures, and trim in its proportions, if sometimes short in poetry or dramatic contrast. Pearlman seemed less interested in making grand orchestral statements than in foregrounding the superbly blended sound of his chorus and supporting his four vocal soloists. He did both to fine effect.

Soprano Amanda Pabyan sang with a clear, light, and agile voice, though her tightly wound vibrato sometimes worked at cross purposes with the purity of the melodic line. Ann McMahon Quintero, substituting for an indisposed Alan Dornak, showed off a smooth and rich mezzo with pleasantly dark colorings. Kerem Kurk was a clarion, sweet-toned tenor soloist. But it was bass-baritone Kevin Deas, in supple and deeply resonant voice, who was the clear standout. He showed just how forcefully these texts can and should be declaimed, bringing particular power and dignity to "The Trumpet Shall Sound." Robinson Pyle was the able trumpet soloist.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

Handel's "Messiah"

Boston Baroque

Martin Pearlman, conductor

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday night

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