For the final subscription program of the calendar year, The Cleveland Orchestra offered Handel’s Messiah – as sure a sign as any that the holidays are approaching. A perennial Christmas tradition – in Cleveland alone, one also had the chance to hear Apollo’s Fire perform the work the previous weekend, and several “sing-along” productions can be found around town in the coming weeks. It should nevertheless be remembered that only Part I of the oratorio’s three parts concerns the Christmas story. At the podium was Jane Glover, a period specialist – and author of the recently published Handel in London – whose work with Chicago’s Music of the Baroque I have greatly admired.

Tamara Mumford © Fay Fox
Tamara Mumford
© Fay Fox

While not a period performance in the purest sense, Glover was nonetheless fastidiously faithful to Handel intentions, for one, employing modestly-sized forces: an orchestra of about 30 and a chorus of about 50. The first two parts were presented virtually unabridged, while Glover opted for some significant yet reasonable cuts to Part 3. It was also noted that Thursday evening counted has her 100th Messiah performance – no small wonder then that she had committed the nearly two-and-a-half hour work to memory!

The chorus is easily the star of any Messiah performance, and the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus under the direction of Lisa Wong delivered the goods. One was struck by the remarkable coordination and cohesion in “For unto us a Child is born”, also commendable for its detailed interplay of the four vocal parts. Great expressive variety was achieved in “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, rallying to great power only to later embody the somberness of a requiem. Their precision was further evidenced by the contrapuntal intricacies of “And with His stripes we are healed” along with the crisp articulation and deft diction of “Lift up your heads, O ye gates”. Buttressed by gleaming brass, the “Hallelujah” Chorus was heightened by the choristers’ ability to seamlessly glide between marked textural contrasts, and the audience responded in kind by rising – an odd tradition, but one with a historical precedent dating to at least 1756. Part 3’s “Since by man came death” made for an additional highlight wherein a monastic monophony burst into a joyous expression of resurrection.

Soprano Lauren Snouffer had her first appearance late in Part 1 with the delicate recitative “There were shepherds abiding”, while “Rejoice greatly” was of dazzling vocal acrobatics, and even more so in the da capo repeat. One got to enjoy the full extent of Snouffer’s instrument during the extended “I know that my Redeemer liveth” which opened Part 3. Like Snouffer, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford was clad in a fittingly festive red. Mumford provided a stream of acutely judged melismas in “But who may abide the day of His coming?”, pitted overtop rather fiery strings. “He was despised and rejected of men” was of stately directness, heightened by subtly ornamented strings and an organ (Alicja Basinska) to add a sense of ceremony; Mumford subsequently offered sharp contrast in the ensuing “He gave His back to the smiters”.

Both of the male soloists were making their TCO debut on Thursday. Handel gave the first vocal appearance to the tenor; Paul Appleby rose to the task with an exceedingly warm “Comfort ye, comfort ye” and a finely lyrical “Ev'ry valley shall be exalted”. “Behold, and see”, however, revealed Appleby’s ability to convey genuine sorrow. Bass-baritone Henry Waddington made somewhat less of an impression: in “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts” for instance, while he managed to quite literally portray the shaking of the heavens and earth described in the text, it nonetheless lacked the heft one might prefer from the lower end of the vocal spectrum. Still, his delivery of the ever-topical “Why do the nations so furiously rage” was quite poignant.

The orchestra offered amicable support throughout. Textures were transparent, with a certain dryness to the strings achieved through only the most judicious use of vibrato. The opening Sinfonia was surprisingly introspective for such a joyous work, punctuated by incessant dotted rhythms as per the French tradition. Situated at the midpoint of Part 1 was the brief Pifa (or “pastoral symphony”), a charming interlude of sustained hush to set the stage for Snouffer’s entrance. Principal trumpet Michael Sachs rose to his feet for his clarion contributions to “The trumpet shall sound”, and much was made of the slender forces available for the closing “Worthy is the Lamb”. A particularly touching moment saw an inner dialogue between concertmaster and principal second violin, a moment of quiet before rallying the splendor of the chorus for the work’s conclusion.