Across the world, the holidays are heralded by concert halls resounding with the joyous sounds of Handel’s Messiah. While it may now be a perennial Christmas tradition, it should be remembered that its 1742 première was not on Christmas, but on Good Friday. Bernard Labadie returned to the podium after being absent from the CSO’s roster of guest conductors last season, during which he was undergoing arduous and protracted treatment for T-cell lymphoma. What’s more, this was only his second engagement since returning to conducting; his official comeback was just the previous week with the St Louis Symphony, leading the same work – and indeed the Messiah is an apt piece with which to resurrect oneself. In spite of everything, Labadie was in remarkably fine form, save for being seated through the performance – but this is no way detracted from his vitality and commitment. And most impressively, he conducted the two-and-a-half hour epic entirely from memory.

Labadie elected for a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach between a true period performance and a massive romanticized interpretation. The CSO was in reduced forces, down to about 40 players, and complemented by a modest chorus of 70. The orchestra responded eagerly to Labadie's directives, favoring light, transparent textures, fairly brisk tempos, and minimal vibrato. Making their CSO debuts were soprano Lydia Teuscher, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy, and tenor Jeremy Ovenden. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was a last-minute substitute from an indisposed Philippe Sly. The four soloists all gave very fine performances, but none was truly a standout. Unusually for an oratorio, the soloists do not represent characters, but instead convey abstract ideas.

The opening sinfonia sets a serious, plaintive tone, though the minor key hardly anticipates the joyful and celebrative spirit that’s to come.  The orchestra gave emphasis to the dotted rhythms, as per the French overture. Not being one to save the best for last, Handel gives the tenor the beautiful aria “Comfort ye, my people” immediately follow the sinfonia, richly sang by Ovenden, although better projection would have made an even stronger impact. The text here, like the bulk of the work, is one that Charles Jennens lifted directly from the King James Bible. McHardy’s first aria “But who may abide the day of his coming?” was another early highlight, augmented by the continuo and airy, chamber-like textures, drawing emphasis to the beauty of her voice before the orchestra picks up in full force.

McHardy’s high point came in the deeply mournful “He was despised” at the beginning of Part II. Teuscher certainly shone in the well-known “Rejoice greatly”, and most affecting was her gorgeous duet with McHardy near the conclusion of Part I. Ketelson delivered well enough in “The trumpet shall sound” although throughout I felt his voice could have used more weight.  Still, he finely represented the low end of the vocal register and had the most overtly operatic voice of the quartet. Christopher Martin’s lustrous tone on the trumpet elevated the aria and recalled the sterling playing of his predecessor, Adolph Herseth. Ketelson’s “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” was also noteworthy, and certainly pertinent – a question that as 2015 draws to a close we must still ask ourselves.

The chorus, prepared by Duain Wolfe, was as reliably as ever in very fine form. “And he shall purify” was marked by a dialogue between the men and women, and involved a series of dazzling melismas. The fugal writing here and elsewhere – particularly in “And with his stripes we are healed” – was expertly handled and delivered with remarkable clarity. And this sophisticated use of choral counterpoint certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Beethoven when he was writing his own Missa solemnis. The ubiquitous “Hallelujah” chorus was an appropriately glorious moment, and even here, the counterpoint belies its apparent simplicity. As is the age-old tradition, the audience rose to their feet, but to my mind this is a tradition as dubious as withholding applause following the first act of Parsifal.

While this performance was as a whole very satisfying and ably executed, it remained frustratingly earthbound, never quite getting off the ground and into the realm of the transcendent. Still, like all great music on religious themes, it used religion not as dogma, but as conduit to something even more universal, and something that unites disparate audiences around the globe each and every December.