Two weeks ago, I reported on what might be termed a “post authentic” version of Handel’s Messiah presented by the Fort Worth Symphony at Bass Performance Hall. Sunday, I took in my second Messiah of the season, a purist, devotedly authentic version presented by the Dallas Bach Society at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Arlington and scheduled to be repeated tonight, Monday, December 19, at Morton H.MeyersonSymphonyCenter.
Both performances had much in common: both strove toward the lean textures, pungent sonorities, and fluid tempos that the exhaustive musicological studies of the middle and late twentieth century have taught us were the intent of Handel and his contemporaries. And, in both cases, the conductors involved demonstrated a devotion and understanding of the arching, cumulative unity of the work—in other words, that Messiah is not just a concert of loosely related separate numbers, but a skillfully and deliberately organized cycle with a definite musical and philosophical trajectory.
But the differences between the two performances were striking as well. TheFort Worthperformance featured a chorus of 120, very much in the tradition of the modern symphonic choir organized specifically to perform the large-scale choral-orchestral works. The Dallas Bach Society performance features a chorus of twenty, as would have been common in both the churches and theaters of Handel’s time. The Fort Worth performance featured an orchestra of around forty musicians (reduced from the orchestra’s usual strength of around ninety), performing on modern orchestral instruments designed to produce the rich, assertive sound demanded by the music of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. The Dallas Bach Society, meanwhile, performs with an orchestra of about two dozen—about the size Handel would have expected—performing on instruments deliberately built as replicas of the common instruments of the first half of the eighteenth century.
Equally significant, while the Fort Worth Symphony performance featured a judiciously abridged version of Handel’s oratorio, the Dallas Bach Society production features Messiah in its full-blown three-hour glory.
Commendable, and, indeed, admirably memorable as it was, the Fort Worth performance was, ultimately, a version compromised, adapted, and adopted to the expectations and tastes of an audience that has heard Mahler and Stravinsky and that rarely sits still for anything as long as two hours.
But, for the music-lover willing to leave the world of noise and sound bites for three hours, and to not only hear but actively and intellectually listen, an unabridged performance of Handel’s Messiah on historically authentic instruments such as that presented by the Dallas Bach Society is an experience worth seeking out. Led from the harpsichord by conductor James Richman, Sunday night’s performance built a momentum based not so much on amazing moments—of which there were plenty—but on the cumulative effect. Richman, as always, demonstrated the perfect sense of both timing and pacing to create individual moments of wonder as well as irresistible momentum.
Chorus and orchestra were both in top form for the performance Sunday night, along with soloists including soprano Lianne Cobie, mezzo-soprano Charis Peden, and bass David Grogan. The most amazing vocal performance of the evening, however, came from tenor Derek Chester, a doctoral candidate at theUniversityofNorth Texaswho, along with a ravishingly beautiful voice, continually revealed a perfect balance of logic and passion.