With so many performances of Handel’s Messiah popping up around the holidays, how’s one to choose? Does one pick based upon the soloists, the conductor, the chorus, the orchestra? The New York Philharmonic’s Messiah attracted me in particular because countertenor Iestyn Davies is one of the featured soloists. After admiring the increasingly in-demand countertenor in recordings, I simply had to hear him live. Because of Davies, soprano Camilla Tilling, and the incredible Westminster Symphonic Choir, the New York Philharmonic’s Messiah makes a delight holiday treat.

Iestyn Davies © Marco Borggreve
Iestyn Davies
© Marco Borggreve

Davies has clearly taken notes from the great David Daniels during their collaborations. He has a beautiful, billowy countertenor that sounds as natural as any falsetto possibly can. In “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” Davies climbed the broad yet melismatic phrases Handel composed to depict the “high mountain”. He was especially dramatic at the end of the first section in the aria “He was despised and rejected”. The singer declaims the opening line of text unaccompanied, and the orchestra softly echoes his laments. His “But who may abide” was lovely, though the orchestra sounded a tad lugubrious. In addition, the intonation of the basses at the beginning of the repeated A section was questionable – and this problem persisted in other arias like “How beautiful are the feet”.

That Camilla Tilling was selected as the soprano soloist for this performance was quite a bonus. In “Rejoice greatly”, she sliced through the orchestra with a spooky pianissimo on the word “peace” at the end of the B section, and then finished wish a stylish candenza. Her cadenza at the end of the B section in “If God be for us, who can be against us” was also very fine – especially when considering she had to do it on the word “intercession” filled with awkward, ungraceful vowel sounds!

Tenor Michael Slattery was a little unstylish and stentorian. Hearing him recently in concert, I could easily hear why he’s booked to sing Britten next summer in Aix-en-Provence. He has the kind of sound people like for modern and contemporary tenor repertoire. But to me, his voice is too tight and nervous for Handel. Baritone James Westman was certainly pomposo in “The trumpet shall sound” but ultimately lacked power. Boy soprano Connor Tsui performed all of the recits scored for him from memory, displaying impressive musicianship. I’m certainly curious to follow this fine young fellow, even if he stops singing and sticks with cello or piano.

Although I confessed I was most interested in this Messiah because I wanted to hear Davies for the first time, the true highlight of the performance was the outstanding Westminster Symphonic Choir. Messiah is such a staple for both audiences and performers alike, so many professional choristers simply perform the piece to collect a check. So, there’s nothing that can compare to the exuberance of young musicians performing Messiah so honestly and with such joy. And, because the Westminster students are crack musicians, the Symphonic Choir easily competes with some of the best professional choirs who specialize in this repertoire.

“Since by man came by death” sounded otherworldly with its evocative, minimalist introduction. The sopranos, who graced the end of “But thanks be to God” with some delicate French trills, sounded as stylish as the members of Les Arts Florissants. The way director Joe Miller brought out the text was also quite a thrill – he helped the singers sculpt each word in Handel’s mighty choruses. In “For unto us a Child is born”, the Choir shaped each epithet for Christ in individual ways, making the word “Wonderful” a wave of sound, “Counselor” a shimmering crown. 

I was impressed at some of the sounds conductor Gary Thor Wedow got from Philharmonic, considering it plays even more diverse repertoire in a season than many opera orchestras. But, some of Wedow’s decisions were questionable, especially the overly pregnant caesura inserted into one of the choruses. The cadenza-like melisma he had soprano Tilling insert at the beginning of the repeat in “I know that my redeemer liveth” did not come off elegantly. I was also unsure why he required a spinet harpsichord on his podium, which he only used to accompany some of the recits. Sometimes it’s great to have “more cowbell,” so to speak. But here, the second harpsichord did not add much to the sound, and not even boy soprano Tsui needed the extra support, since he performed entirely from memory. Sometimes it’s better (and cheaper) to go with less cowbell.