Minnesota Orchestra's ensemble played with precision and clarity, but Chorale soloists were too restrained.
Osmo Vänskä has never made his home in the opera house. Nor is the Baroque period his specialty. As a result, his first "Messiah" with Minnesota Orchestra, heard Wednesday morning at Orchestra Hall, was a decidedly mixed bag.
Handel's oratorio can be a tough nut to crack because it is a dramatic work with no narrative to propel the action. But Vänskä seemed out of tune with the drama, ignoring the work's three-act structure (organized around Christ's Nativity, the crucifixion and the resurrection), by placing the intermission in the middle of the crucifixion section.
Throughout, he tended to regard the arias and choruses as discrete musical numbers rather than as part of a dramatic whole. And his conducting lacked a degree of forward propulsion, particularly in the recitatives.
In an effort to approximate Baroque performance practice with a modern orchestra, Vänskä conducted much reduced forces, an ensemble roughly the size of Handel's. This showed off the precision of the instrumentalists, revealing with clarity the inner voices.
Minnesota Chorale sang with a crisp, clean sound. But their large forces were so restrained that the sopranos occasionally sounded anemic.
Things got off to a good start stylistically with a cadenza in the tenor's opening recitative, "Comfort, ye." The elaborate decoration of the vocal lines added a needed level of excitement to the performance. The four soloists had the requisite technique, but none had particularly engaging voices.
Though countertenor Brian Asawa's striking high notes rang through the hall, in the middle and especially the lower registers, where most of the role lies, his voice was thin and threadbare. His "He was despised" lacked the deep reservoir of lamentation that a good contralto can bring to it.
Tenor Thomas Cooley had a problem negotiating between registers and sang too much of the role in an unpleasant head voice. Klara Ek spent most of her time trying to hold her small fluttery soprano together. She brought no ecstasy to "I know that my Redeemer liveth." But the fault was also with Vänskä's tempos.
Baritone Philip Cutlip sang "The trumpet shall sound" with the most passion and conviction of the day. But his woolly baritone and aspirated coloratura undermined his performance.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.