The New York Philharmonic: Peter Schreier conducts Handel’s Messiah

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George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

Peter Schreier conducts Handel’s Messiah
New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall

Wednesday, December 14, 2011, 7:30 pm

Peter Schreier, conductor
Ute Selbig, soprano
Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto
Steve Davislim, tenor
Peter Rose, bass
Westminster Symphonic Choir
Joe Miller, director

Handel – Messiah (1741 Version)

There is nothing remarkable, I suppose, in the complex associations that surrounded my visit to Avery Fisher Hall to hear, once again, Handel’s Messiah. I love the work as much as anyone with absolutely no admixture of peevishness—except for a bad performance—but I certainly can’t take it every year. This time, although the name of Peter Schreier and his distinguished soloists should be enough to attract anyone, I was drawn by my fascination with singers as conductors following the outstanding—and profoundly vocal—performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at Emmanuel Church in Boston a few months ago, conducted by Emmanuel Music’s new Music Director, Ryan Turner. Susan Davenny Wyner, for example, is another singer—a great one—who has made an especially valuable contribution as a conductor. In this respect this performance of Messiah was exactly what I expected it to be.

It also happened that I had spent that morning talking with Vivica Genaux (interview forthcoming), and the subject of foreign languages and accents came up in connection with an outstanding performance she gave at Tannery Pond a few years ago of Loewe’s setting of Frauenliebe und Leben, and the sensitivity her accompanist, Craig Rutenberg, gave to the German language, providing her with plenty of room to savor the German consonants in the text. That brought to mind a fairly recent recording of Schubert’s Schwanengesang by a renowned English tenor, whose German, although excellent by any standards, lacked the flexibility and nuance of a native speaker. Ms. Genaux has a special gift for languages and was more successful, but we both agreed that there was a final trace of foreignness that would remain impossible to eradicate…and I defy any non-German to equal Hans Hotter’s effortless diction in Die Winterreise. (As an occasional teacher of languages, I recommend that students try to start by developing an ear for a single dialect—whatever they are hearing in the street, if they are lucky enough to be studying a language in the motherland—advice which won’t work, if they happen to be in rural Bavaria, where a great many Goethe Instituts are located!) This can apply to music itself, apart from any text it might be associated with. In spite of the homogenization nurtured by radio, recordings, and jet travel, national styles in music remain very much alive. Ms Genaux mentioned a European performance of Rhapsody in Blue which lacked the jazzy quality an American can bring to it in an entirely natural way. (Recent performances of Porgy and Bess [Tanglewood/A. R. T.] have been a reminder of the lengths Gershwin went to order to acquire the language of “negro folk music,” resulting in music that is ingrained in most American ears, although the music and the language are none the less artificial.) This is not to say that music is best performed by a musician of the same nationality as the composer—a topic much discussed at last summer’s edition of the Bard Music Festival, which was devoted to Jean Sibelius. He cultivated a curious mixture of the national and the international in his work and in his persona. Dvořák was more obviously parochial, but we are used to hearing equally compelling performances of his works from Germans, Englishmen, Italians, Americans, and other nationalities. And for that matter Dvořák’s international experiences were similar to Sibelius’: both were highly regarded in Britain and the United States.

As the work of a German composer who spent crucial formative years in Italy and established a career in England, writing and producing Italian operas, Messiah, first produced in Dublin, is for all its Italianate melodic lines and dance rhythms, was a cornerstone of English music through nineteenth century dearth, the visitation of Mendelssohn, and the renaissance of the twentieth century. The work was already an institution even before the great Handel centenary performance of 1784 in Westminster Abbey. From its 1742 premiere on, it became associated with charitable events, presumably a factor in drawing it into the ambit of Christmas rather than Lent, for which it was originally intended.

The parallel American tradition is not dissimilar, although the festival performances by enormously populated choral societies was less a factor than in England. Most Americans traditionally knew the work from Christmastide performances in churches or occasional concerts in secular spaces. New York is rich in both kinds of Messiahs, and I can well remember from childhood the almost confusing range of choices one had both at Christmas and Easter. Messiah gained early popularity in Germany and Austria as well, through the efforts of  Johann Adam Hiller and Gottfried van Swieten, but never the same national and religious associations as it enjoyed in the Anglo-Saxon world. Most of us grew up learning that, outside of church, the “Hallelujah” Chorus was the only music you stood up for other than the national anthem.

Since the editions of John Tobin, Watkins Shaw, and Donald Burrows, and the landmark recordings under Colin Davis (1967), Charles Mackerras (1967), and Christopher Hogwood (1980), American performances have tended not only to favor historical performance practices, using period instruments and smaller choruses, but this British model in particular, with boy sopranos and altos or women singing with reduced vibrato, light textures, fast tempi, and sprightly rhythms, even in the more devotional passages. The New York Philharmonic has performed Messiah every Christmas season since 2002, following a more sporadic revisitation of the work through the the twentieth century, and in this, they have maintained a judicious variety among the different approaches current at the time: Neville Marriner, Nicholas McGegan, Alan Gilbert, Richard Hickox, Harry Bicket, Ton Koopman, Helmuth Rilling, Bernard Labadie, and now Peter Schreier. The predominance of British conductors cannot only be explained because there are so many more of them specializing in the Baroque and in Handel. The German tradition has appeared only recently, with Rilling in 2009 and now Peter Schreier, who, during and after his illustrious career as an all-round tenor, pursued a second career as a conductor. Schreier adopted the original 1741 version, which was once a rarity, but is now well known.

Although Schreier has excelled in Mozart, Schubert Lieder, and Wagner, his early background with the Dresdener Kreuzchor established his roots in Bach. Hence his approach to Messiah is founded on sturdy Saxon tradition. His rock solid pacing did not inhibit him from eliciting quite a lot of energy from the orchestra, while with the singers he had only to set it free, it seemed. This and his attention to the structure of each number, part, and the whole, enabled him to build the “Hallelujah” Chorus and the other great fugal choruses to powerful climaxes.

In Germany, as in England, the tradition of boy choirs goes back centuries, and Schreier himself began as a boy chorister, as did Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and other great male singers. He is surely comfortable with mature mixed choirs as well. Vibrato is discreet, but not suppressed to the extent it is in Great Britain. He has never been associated with period instruments, any more than Ramin, Richter or Rilling. While clear textures are appreciated, they are richer than those favored by period instrument specialists. There has been less change in performance style over the generations. The tradition is rooted in church music, while early performances of Messiah occurred in secular venues. For Handel oratorio was opera disguised by a biblical subject, and, while the direct biblical quotations of Jennens’ libretto seem an anomaly, its purpose was the same as the others: to provide an entertainment that could get by the strictures of Lent. Hence a German performance of Messiah, in spite of its early importation, is in fact music-making with a foreign accent. And with the ubiquity of British-school historical performances, American audiences are well-attuned to the difference, even if the text is not sung in German translation.

For this reason a German performance of Messiah should be all the more welcome, as a refreshing change from the familiar. I don’t know if my fellow audience members perceived it that way, but they certainly enjoyed it. What made the performance unique was Schreier’s total sympathy with the human voice, whether in solo or chorus. While the New York Philharmonic played with warmth and elegance, as well as their handsome string sound, which brings to mind the depths of polished onyx, the immediacy and vitality of the singing made the performance exceptional, as it was intended to. The impression was quite the same as the Emmanuel Music concert I have referred to, although the soloists here included some big names. Both these and the chorus seemed liberated in expression and vocal coloring, although Schreier kept a tight control of tempo and phrasing. He wanted the Westminster Symphonic Choir (a large force for modern ears: over 70 strong!) to sing to like a group of soloists, and under Joe Miller’s direction, they delivered brilliantly. As one would expect, since they are students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, they are young, but mature voices, bright in tone and precise in articulation, and full of energy. The chorus was always beautifully balanced, with a sturdy bass, rich tenors, and silvery female voices, all using very light vibrato. I can’t say whether the prominence of the tenors was in Westminster’s usual style or whether it was a Germanic trait encouraged by Herr Schreier, but it was extremely pleasing to the ear. Schreier was constantly seeking clarity, and I can’t remember a performance in which all the choral lines came through so well. He pursued this further by having them sing staccato in some running passages—a strategy unfamiliar to American and British audiences, which also sounds inoffensively but noticeably unidiomatic with the English language. But this was a performance with a foreign accent, as I have mentioned—a cultivated and thoroughly attractive one, to be sure. The sense of artificiality was also slight, but the diction was about the best I have heard in a choral performance. Every word was understandable.

The soprano soloist doesn’t enter until the home stretch of Part I, immediately following the Pifa, when the words of the New Testament finally make their appearance in quotations from the Nativity story according to Luke (2: 9-11, 12-14)—a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy of enlightenment sung by the bass (“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light…” Is. 9: 2) and the robust joyfulness of the ensuing chorus (“For unto to us a child is born…” Is. 9: 6). The shadowy timbre of the entire ensemble in this early prophetical sequence, as the soloists proceeded from tenor to bass to contralto and back to bass came across most effectively in the acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall. The amazing young Australian tenor, Steve Davislim, who has already earned a stellar reputation in European opera houses in roles extending from Mozart to Wagner and contemporary opera, as well as Bach and Handel, set Messiah in motion with the rich, darker part of his range in his E Major recitative and song, followed by Peter Rose, another superb voice, with his intense nuancing of his recitative. Nathalie Stutzmann, one of our great contraltos, gave a richly colored, passionate, and forcefully shaped rendition of “But who may abide…” This sequence of vocal timbres was truly remarkable, and brought a special insight into the sounds Handel imagined. One could only assume that Peter Schreier hand-picked them for just this sort of effect…and they continued on to the end at this high level. The Dresdener Staatsoper Kammersängerin, Ute Selbig, whom I remember as a deliciously sexy Freya in the Dresden Rheingold of 2010brought a humane warmth to the soprano parts, with energetic phrasing and almost Romantic feeling, which didn’t seem at all out of place. Her voice was full of fruit and sunny fire—a valuable contribution to the ensemble, although she did seem too sharp a bit on a few occasions, and the range of her voice—really the brighter timbre after the entry of the soprano—inevitably aroused some of the less pleasant aspects of the Fisher Hall acoustics—which is no fault of hers. It was really rather subtle. Schreier managed the hall acoustics brilliantly. I found that she and the others were able to establish a direct and intimate connection not only through their consummate musicianship and splendid voices, but through the direct projection of their voices in the hall. For once their was hardly any reason to complain about the Avery Fisher sound. All the soloists used extensive ornamentation in their da capos, and sang them with ease and style. These were especially beautiful and consistent in style, although each singer brought his or her own ornamentation.

With Schreier’s solid pace and exceptional clarity, the New York Philharmonic’s eloquent playing, and the full expressiveness and consummate technique of every voice in the hall—with the notably exception of my neighbor’s—this was one of the most musically fulfilling and spiritually moving Messiahs I have heard. And this brings me to one final level in my experience: the feeling of grounding one has in hearing a Christmas Messiah, and observing the fine old tradition of standing for the “Hallelujah” Chorus in one’s home town.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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