Handel with care - a memorable Messiah at NY Phil

By Raymond Beegle

Messiah: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Jane Glover, conductor; Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller, director; Heidi Stober, soprano, Tim Meade, countertenor, Paul Appelby, tenor, Roderick Williams, baritone • December 19th, 2015

Power, wisdom, glory and blessing,” the virtues sung out in the final chorus of Messiah, may seem like extravagances in the midst of pressured New York life, but they were present in force at tonight’s performance in Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir. This same power that prompted Handel to write his great work in 24 days, coursed through the minds, instruments, and voices of the musicians on stage and into the ears and hearts of their rapt listeners. An announcement just before the concert, of Kurt Masur’s death, and the dedication of this performance to his memory and legacy, brought an added gravity to the occasion. It was immediately evident in the sound of the orchestra, with its luminous string section, playing without vibrato, and casting a halo of sound about the entire company of performers. The Westminster Choir, whose slim, pure vocal lines created an absolutely dazzling ensemble sound, complemented the instruments and gave the impression of a perfect unity with the chorus possessing the added gift of words. 
The ardent young soloists made their contribution as well as singing with assurance, clarity of diction, and absolute commitment to the text. Soprano Heidi Stober was a slight exception to the musical order of the evening. There was a hint of Broadway in her style, and a flutter in her vocal line, a contrast to her three colleagues who sang directly into the center of the pitch. Her pronunciation was sometimes eccentric as well; one heard “Savyer” rather than ‘Saviour,” for example, but her delivery was compelling nonetheless. 
Jane Glover set brisk and muscular tempos, placing considerable demands on the chorus and soloists, especially during the extended volleys of sixteenth notes that occur throughout the work. The resulting display of virtuosic articulation was nothing short of marvelous.
Glover is a musician of great skill with a remarkable sense of form, phrasing and tempo, as well as an instinct for the dramatic power of silences. Her phrases flowed with dancelike accents into the larger units of the work giving the impression of inevitable resolution in the manner of Furtwängler’s fernhoren, where the final cadence is foreseen in the first sounds of the overture. She led both musician and listener through a carefully constructed dramatic landscape, taking great care that nothing was overstated. In fact she was rather stinting by way of climaxes, deftly choosing only a few moments to make her mark, and allowing only one, all stops out burst of sound from the entire company. This occurred, at the final two amens, which shook the rafters, as well as the emotional foundations of many in the audience. 
A host of luminaries has breathed life into Messiah, and styles have varied widely:  Beecham’s grandiose Victorian indulgence with the orchestration of Eugene Goossens; Herman Scherchen’s “original Dublin version;” or Trevor Pinnock’s “authentic” reproduction, whatever authentic might mean to him. Tonight’s performance stood up to the best of them. 
Sincerity is a tired word, and it is unprovable. Still, it is the one element absolutely necessary for a deeply moving performance regardless of the artist’s technical accomplishments. It seemed to be the driving force behind every musician this evening, and its source, aside from the music itself, was undoubtedly the brilliant conductor Jane Glover. This was a night to remember. 

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.