Alongside an Old Standard, Sounds That Were Made for the Christmas Season

12.13.09
Les Violons du Roy
The New York Times

By James R. Oestreich

What if one of the many organizations that present Handel’s “Messiah” around this time every year in New York were to offer something else for a change? Perhaps something actually written for Christmas time (unlike “Messiah,” which Handel typically performed during the Easter season), like Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”

Bernard Labadie and his orchestra and chorus from Quebec City, Les Vilons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, presented a sort of test case at Carnegie Hall over the weekend. On Friday evening they performed “Messiah,” the third high-profile account of the work last week in New York (with at least eight to follow this week and three the next). On Saturday evening they performed Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” seemingly the only major complete rendition of the season here. (If you haven’t announced yours, do it now.)

This least scientific of comparisons suggested, as feared, that the more adventuresome organization would draw a substantially smaller audience. The house for “Messiah,” though by no means full, was respectable; that for the “Christmas Oratorio” was considerably smaller, though, after two late-seating breaks, not as thin as it initially appeared.

More’s the pity. The “Christmas Oratorio” — actually a gathering of six individual cantatas written for the liturgical feast days of the Christmas season, extending to the Epiphany, on Jan. 6 — is a piece of similar scope and scale to “Messiah,” with even a little pastoral sinfonia at a parallel juncture. It is at least as rich and varied in melody, brilliance and exuberance.

But it is painted in fine strokes, with an abundance of detail, almost a surfeit when performed in a single sitting. It lacks the immediate appeal of “Messiah,” which is painted in broad strokes, none broader than the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Still, both works can be endlessly satisfying in performances as fine as those Mr. Labadie presented here. This “Messiah” in particular was, for the combined excellence of the choral singing and the orchestral playing, the best I’ve heard in years.

Mr. Labadie, who conducted the New York Philharmonic in “Messiah” in 2006 and made his Metropolitan Opera debut with Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” in September, is an early-music specialist of a pragmatic bent. His players use conventional instruments with modern fittings, for the most part, but revert in many ways to period practice. The string players — fit for a king indeed, as the band’s name might suggest — use Baroque bows and apply vibrato only sparingly, for specific expressive purposes.

Mr. Labadie’s chorus of 32 flouts current minimalist notions of Bach orthodoxy. But it performed with revelatory transparency and balance. At certain cutoffs in each work you could imagine that you were hearing each individual voice reverberate, perfectly weighted, through the seamless harmony.

The orchestra (24 players in the Handel, 31 in the Bach), too, was superb. The strings positively blazed as the refiner’s fire burned and the nations raged in “Messiah,” and solo players acquitted themselves beautifully, right down to the trumpet tour de force by Benjamin Raymond in the closing chorale of the “Christmas Oratorio.”

Unfortunately, the vocal soloists — even the star presence, the countertenor David Daniels, who sometimes showed strain — were not always on the same level. The soprano Rosemary Joshua, who, like Mr. Daniels, performed in both works, projected unevenly and was sometimes a bit wild in tone and intonation.

Most effective was Andrew Foster-Williams, the bass-baritone in “Messiah,” who dispatched the quavering figures depicting fire and rage with full-bodied tone despite Mr. Labadie’s brisk tempos and was just as effective intoning the serene “great light” seen by “the people that walked in darkness.” Joshua Hopkins, the baritone in the “Christmas Oratorio,” sang with attractive tone quality but less weight.

Of the tenors, the clear-voiced Alan Bennett, in the Handel, fared better than Jan Kobow, in the Bach. Mr. Kobow, though he produced lovely sounds, seemed overmatched from the start singing both the role of the Evangelist and the tenor arias, and lost all substance to his voice in the late going.

None of which will detract in the end from memories of two eloquent performances by Mr. Labadie and his forces, who took the measure of two great masterpieces and played them to a draw.