The New York Philharmonic’s Magnificent Messiah

Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY; December 16, 2014–For several years the period-performance aesthetic has dominated the New York Philharmonic’s annual Handel Messiah performances as conducted by such early music specialists as Nicholas McGegan, Ton Koopman, and currently Gary Thor Wedow, who opened the orchestra’s 2014 Messiah run Tuesday night. He presided over an orchestra of reduced forces, continuo support, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and a splendid array of soloists, while discreetly accompanying recitatives from the virginal.

The performance featured several Philharmonic debuts. Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling’s agile coloratura and controlled passion brought new life to the venerable “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion”, while her sustained lyricism and simplicity made for a touching “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Once past Scene 2’s slightly hectoring opening recitative, baritone James Westman’s sonority opened up for the rest of the evening. He nailed his vibrant “The Trumpet Shall Sound” with a ringing, dead-of-center high A that I suspect he enjoyed as much as my smiling audience neighbors.

Boy soprano Connor Tsui sang his angelic prophecies in Part 1 with perfect poise and confidence. Having made an impressive last-minute Philharmonic debut last year in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Michael Slattery was on hand for the tenor arias, standing out with a crisp and incisive rendition of “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”. However, countertenor Iestyn Davies offered the most vocal variety. He imbued slower numbers with subtle, almost jazzy rhythmic inflections, and “handled” (pun definitely intended!) ornamentation elegantly, as on the second verse of “He shall feed His flock”.

In addition to the fleet tempos, buoyant rhythms, and air-tight transitions that distinguished his 2012 Philharmonic Messiah, Gary Wedow brought a theorbo into the traditional harpsichord and organ continuo mix. This huge yet graceful-sounding lute relative provided lovely plucking and strumming textures that buttoned recitative phrase ends and gently cut through sustained chords. Unlike many period string sections who sound threadbare and wiry with minimum vibrato, the Philharmonic strings managed to convey a full bodied presence.

The magnificent chorus navigated fast runs and unwieldy leaps clearly and effortlessly, such as in the throat-twisting “His yoke is easy”, while syncopated contrapuntal selections like “Let us break their bonds asunder” had a playful clarity that often eludes “traditional” performances. Speaking of tradition, the audience rose for the “Hallelujah” chorus, where Wedow imposed several italicizing ritards and milked the timpani rolls on the final cadence for all they were worth. It may have been the evening’s one arguable lapse from stylish grace by HIP standards, but let’s give a vastly experienced man of the theater like Wedow the proverbial benefit of the doubt.