Handel: Messiah (Concert Review - The Seattle Times, 2016)

Hallelujah! A bright, brilliant ‘Messiah’ at Seattle Symphony


What a difference a conductor makes.

The Seattle Symphony’s guest maestro for this year’s “Messiah” performances, Stephen Layton, put his own expert stamp on Handel’s most famous oratorio Friday evening in the first of four performances at Benaroya Hall. Imaginative, lively, and full of drama, this was a “Messiah” worth the audience’s “hallelujah.”

Layton, a distinguished British conductor whose recordings with the ensemble Polyphony are prized by choral fans, has put together a distinctive and convincing version of the Handel classic. There are several trims; audiences may be startled to see the performance move directly from “The trumpet shall sound” to “Worthy is the lamb,” but it makes dramatic sense. (And few will regret the omission of some of the intervening numbers; even Handel was unevenly inspired, particularly when he was in a hurry. He composed his “Messiah” in just under three weeks.)

Full of exciting contrasts and beautifully tailored dynamics, Layton’s briskly paced reading commands the listener’s involvement. The chorus “Surely he hath borne our griefs” was given punchy, almost aggressive accents. “All we like sheep” was all rollicking energy until the final line (“The iniquity of us all”), which Layton drew out at great length, leaning on the dissonance of a minor second in the next-to-last bar.

With a wealth of expressive details and dynamic contrasts, this was a performance that made clear Layton’s mastery of this score and its timing. There were no awkward pauses; soloists moved into place before their entrances, and the transitions were nearly seamless. The soloists, all from various locations in the British Isles, included soprano Eleanor Dennis, mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, tenor Gwilym Bowen, and baritone Robert Davies. They ranged from commendable to downright thrilling. Dominating that latter category was Bowen, who made the kind of impact not heard here since the lone “Messiah” appearance in Seattle of the great English tenor Phillip Langridge, back in the late 1970s. Lyrical and agile, with considerable expressive depth, Bowen delivered every phrase as if it had just occurred to him, with unfailingly expressive spontaneity. His “Thy rebuke” was positively heart-rending.

The Chorale, prepared by Joseph Crnko, was a fleet and nimble ensemble, following Layton’s tempo changes with alacrity. The trimmed-down orchestra, with Simon James as concertmaster, played with very little vibrato; David Gordon’s trumpet solos were nobly executed. Organist Joseph Adam added to the drama by dashing from the small onstage instrument up to the loft of the mighty Watjen concert organ for a final “Amen” that shivered the timbers of the hall — and the audience.

Go, if you can: who knows when the Symphony will be able to lure Layton back, and hearing him at work with these musical forces is a holiday treat not to be missed.

Reviewed by Melinda Bargreen