Another year, another Messiah. How do you keep Handel’s great oratorio sounding fresh and relevant when it comes around each holiday season for yet another string of performances?

Hiring Paul McCreesh is one solution. The English conductor is a choral specialist, and he brought a rare clarity and dynamism to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Messiah at the Basilica of Saint Mary on a snow-swept Friday evening.

McCreesh’s take on Handel’s masterpiece was bracingly direct and free of pomposity. There was airiness and elegance in the SPCO’s playing in the instrumental Sinfonia that opens the oratorio, and the fleet, sprightly account of the tenor aria “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted” that followed had a sparkling energy and sense of forward momentum.

Thomas Walker was the tenor, and he shared with his three fellow soloists an ability to make the Biblical words vibrate with meaning and immediacy. His “Comfort ye” recitative had an almost sensual aura to it, and he galvanized attention in the intense Part Two sequence where Christ is mocked and endures the vale of sorrows.

Mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau brought an unusual degree of brooding intensity to her solos, a hint of simmering defiance underpinning the arias “But who may abide” and “He was despised.” Both were delivered with a formidable poise and satisfying tonal plenitude.

Poise and dignity also characterized the contributions of soprano Elizabeth Atherton. “I know that my Redeemer liveth” was permeated by a calm confidence and vocal purity totally in keeping with the scriptural message, and in Part One Atherton exuded joy and expectancy in the accompagnato section where an angel appears to the shepherds.

That was one of several episodes where conductor McCreesh’s skill in building a cumulative anticipation and excitement was thrillingly evident. The urgent rush of airs and choruses concluding Part Two was brilliantly paced and marshaled under McCreesh’s direction, with a blistering “Hallelujah!” chorus to cap it.

Generally, though, the choral element of the evening was a disappointment. That had nothing to do with McCreesh or the hardworking singers of the Minnesota Chorale, who showed every evidence of scrupulous preparation and commitment.

The problem was the Basilica’s cavernous acoustic, in particular the majestic dome which rises high above the altar. Into that resonating space swirled much of the sound that the 45 choral singers created, making a mush of many choruses, and draining subtleties from a rhythmically buoyant number such as “Lift up your heads.”

If the choral sound, sucked of power and focus, was distinctly underwhelming, there was still riveting drama to be had at the performance’s conclusion. It came in the shape of Dashon Burton, the bass-baritone soloist.

Abetted by Lynn Erickson’s gleaming trumpet obbligato, Burton’s account of “The trumpet shall sound” was the high point of the evening, delivered with sovereign certitude and the fervor of a revivalist preacher. It was an astonishingly stirring piece of singing, and one that will live long in the memory.

 

Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.