A Period-Style Taste of a Holiday-Season Staple

12.17.09
Helmuth Rilling
New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Fans of a period-style approach to Handel’s “Messiah” would certainly have appreciated the superb interpretation of this annual holiday staple offered by the New York Philharmonic and the renowned Baroque music specialist Helmuth Rilling on Tuesday at Avery Fisher Hall.

Large modern orchestras sometimes offer renditions of the “Messiah” that sound thundering and heavy compared to leaner versions by period-instrument groups. But under Mr. Rilling’s eminent baton, the reduced forces of the Philharmonic produced an impressively taut, buoyant and sharply etched sound, playing with a vibrant pulse and almost no vibrato. Philip Smith offered a fine trumpet solo in the famous “Trumpet shall sound” section.

The musicians were aptly matched by the noteworthy Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, a chorus founded by Mr. Rilling as a student in 1954. It initially focused on a cappella music from the 16th, 17th and 20th centuries but now performs a broad range of works.

Mr. Rilling favored brisk tempos on Tuesday and the choir — distinguished by its precise diction, crisp articulation and control — sounded cleanly fluid even in the fastest passages. The transparency of their immaculate singing was boosted by carefully shaped dynamic contrasts. They made a particularly gorgeous sound in the concluding chorus.

Some of the vocal soloists offered a more operatic approach, like the soprano Annette Dasch, who made her Philharmonic debut on Tuesday. She sang with conviction and an appealingly rounded and warm tone.

Also making their debuts with the orchestra were the bass-baritone Shenyang (winner of the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition), who sang with an sensitive, rich voice, and the countertenor Daniel Taylor. His clear, pure voice was often expressive but sounded messy in some of the faster passages and often failed to project in his lower range. The tenor James Taylor performed with conviction and plenty of bite.