ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Isn’t Handel’s “Messiah” a Christmas piece? That’s been the tradition for a long while, and it seems to suit well the yuletide spirit – at the least the first third of the work. Actually, the premiere performance was on April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland, celebrating the Easter season.
Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico is reviving that original context in its superlative production this weekend at St. John’s Cathedral. The group begins the work with Part Two, essentially the Easter story. Music Director Maxine Thévenot has assembled an outstanding group of players and singers alike. Chorus, orchestra and soloists all come together brilliantly, creating an event that will not easily be forgotten. Frankly, I can do no better than to give this performance my highest recommendation.
Thévenot’s direction invariably shapes the music with illuminating and often profound effect, sculpting each phrase with intelligence and understanding. There is an immaculate precision to every gesture, never failing to miss Handel’s inspired sense of tone painting. With four to seven singers on a part, Polyphony sounds like a much larger ensemble given the rampant enthusiasm of the singers in the resonant acoustic atmosphere of the cathedral.
Beginning with a relaxed tempo in the opening chorus, “Behold the Lamb of God,” there was a luxuriant sound to the group, solid throughout its range from stratospheric sopranos to robust basses. One can easily become mesmerized in the opulent sonorities.
The “All we, like sheep” chorus had a joyous bounce to it that I have never before heard either in concert or recording. Not waiting for anyone to remember to stand for the Hallelujah chorus, Thévenot turned to the audience and directed us to rise, commemorating the king standing at attention in awe of the composer – just as it should be. The sound which then majestically filled the cathedral was well worth standing for.
This production is also unusual in that all the vocal soloists are men. The four distinct vocal colors create a marvelous variety of sound. Eric S. Brenner tops the four as male soprano (higher than a countertenor). His aria “How beautiful are the feet” glowed with an angelic reverence. Countertenor Patrick Fennig takes the alto part beginning with a heartfelt intensity of smooth, effortless, bittersweet tones in the aria “He gave his back to the smiters.”