Dallas — Lively tempos, lean textures, a superb cast of soloists, and a consistent devotion to authentic 18th-century performance practice cast a brilliant glow on Handel’s Messiah Sunday night in a performance by the Dallas Bach Society Orchestra and Chorus at Meyerson Symphony Center, conducted from the harpsichord by the James Richman.
The venerable oratorio, as much a holiday staple as fruitcake and Christmas trees, holds the record for the longest continuous presence of any work in the concert repertoire; since its premiere in 1741, Messiah has maintained continued popularity, and, indeed, introduced the concept that a musical work, like a great work of art or literature, could be worthy of preservation and presentation for succeeding generations. In this sense, Messiah is the foundation of the whole concept of “classical” music.
Performances of Messiah through the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries approached the work with a “bigger is better” attitude, resulting in grandiose performances with choruses and orchestras in the hundreds. The Dallas Bach Society, however, returns to forces similar to those used in Handel’s time, using authentic reproductions 18th-century instruments, and an informed awareness of vocal and instrumental techniques common in Handel’s time.
The Dallas Bach Society thus relies and a chorus of 25, and an orchestra of 18, very close to what was present at the first performances of Messiah. The sound of this historically proportioned ensemble—much lighter and, in some ways, more pungent in character than that of the modern orchestra—can produce an effect as thrilling and grand as the hundreds assembled on the same stage for the monumental works of Mahler or Brahms. Also in keeping with informed conjecture, and adding to the sense of momentum inherent in the work, conductor Richman opted for livelier tempos than were common in Messiah performances a few decades ago. (In on departure from stringent historical authenticity, Richman, while presenting every movement for an officially unabridged version, shortened some of the longer arias, allowing the performance to draw to its close after three hours.)
Both chorus and orchestra were well-blended Sunday night; the chorus was occasionally a little less than crisp in entrances and cut-offs, but sang with impressive precision in the murderous melismatic passages of which Handel was fond. For this listener, the series of choruses at the beginning of Part II, beginning with “Behold the Lamb of God” and culminating in “All We Like Sheep,” was a particular highlight of the evening; in this section, Handel departs from his usual light, translucent counterpoint for thicker textures (of the sort we more readily associate with Bach), revealed with translucent clarity by this ensemble.
The soloists, interestingly, each approached their roles slightly differently but equally effectively. For my tastes, countertenor Scot Cameron’s rendition of the alto solos was the most impressive, with a solidly beautiful tone quality and wow-inducing breath control on long phrases; his command of the part was obvious throughout, but especially impressive in the long, mournful aria “He Was Despised.” Soprano Anna Fredericka Popova took an almost romantic, broadly expressive approach, at its best in her extended aria, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Tenor Dann Coakwell likewise took a detail-oriented viewpoint, combining a close attention to narrative elements of his role with a smooth and attractive tone. Baritone David Grogan of the faculty of the University of Texas at Arlington presented an appropriately thunderous reading of the bass role, applying a vocal quality both gorgeous and assertive. This emerged most gloriously in the most prominent bass aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” in which Handel recasts the standard eighteenth-century martial aria genre as a radiant vision of triumph over death.
Indeed, although the text of Messiah, drawn entirely from the King James Bible, may be viewed as adamantly Christian and even Protestant in outlook, it bears a universal message, well realized in this rendition by the Dallas Bach Society and conductor Richman. Here, laid out in the complex interweaving of voices and the unabashed grandeur of the baroque, lies a sublime and subtly dramatic imagining of a world in which sorrow and suffering are vanquished, and universal peace reigns under the care of a loving God.