Handel's "Messiah" comes round every December, and with it an inevitable question: Is there anything fresh left to be said about Handel's choral masterpiece?
For this year's string of four performances, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra invited Jeannette Sorrell to provide an answer. Sorrell is a baroque specialist and longtime artistic director of Cleveland's Apollo's Fire ensemble. Standing at a harpsichord and alternating playing with conducting, she led an orchestra of 23 and the 45 voices of the Singers choir in Thursday's performance at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
The big moments were undoubtedly impressive. The "Hallelujah" chorus was primed with adrenaline and built to an elated climax. "The trumpet shall sound" was combatively sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg, with a ringingly triumphant trumpet solo from Lynn Erickson. At the work's conclusion, the "Amen" was eloquently launched by the choir's basses and tenors, with an unusual ethereal clarity of texture.
But elsewhere in the performance, Sorrell's fussy interventions compromised the natural flow.
There were odd choral ritardandos in "And he shall purify." Over-emphatic separation of syllables in "Worthy Is the Lamb." A tendency to labor details of articulation in the string playing. The tweaks were numerous, indicating a tendency to unnecessarily micromanage the performers.
This destabilized the vocal soloists to some extent. Countertenor Reginald Mobley displayed mellifluous evenness of tone in his arias, but seemed rushed in places by Sorrell's clipped tempo in the keynote "He was despised." Soprano Carine Tinney had radiant moments in "I know that my Redeemer liveth," but both she and violin soloist Ruggero Allifranchini had difficulty fully locking into Sorrell's strongly inflected harpsichord patterns. Tenor Rufus Müller lent ardor and intensity to the dramatic sequence of recitative and aria leading to "Hallalujah," spitting out consonants in "Thou shalt break them" with impressive venom.
All four soloists sang from memory, which helped re-establish any intimacy lost by performing "Messiah" in a space as large and vaulted as the Basilica. Some of the nuance in their singing was inevitably swallowed by the bucket-like acoustics — an occupational hazard in cavernous ecclesiastical settings.
Major cuts (over a dozen numbers) were made to the music after intermission, including some of the score's most beautiful and stirring moments. The choruses "Behold the Lamb of God," "Lift up your heads" and "Since by man came death" were all casualties, as was the duet "O death, where is thy sting." Why the omissions? To save time? It wasn't quite Messiah-lite, but a sense of anticlimax was inevitable for those who know and love this music.
In the end, the choral contribution of the Singers was the most satisfying element of the evening. Their clean, accurate runs and intelligent sifting of dynamics were a constant source of satisfaction, lending continuity to a performance which occasionally tried too hard to seek out novel wrinkles of interpretation.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.