Messiah and The Nutcracker are twin poles of the American Christmas concert season, with both secular and sacred needs amply met by their ritualized annual performances to excitable seasonal audiences. Of course, there are Messiahs and Messiahs: there are the mammoth variety with as many people as can cram onto stage, and then there are the small and intimate ones (as if it were Dublin in 1742, without swords and hoops). And in between, there are the respectable medium-sized Messiahs of which tonight’s NSO version was an example.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Simon Fowler
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

Nathalie Stutzmann, making her NSO debut as conductor, was an energizing presence, and led us, dynamically, if somewhat breathlessly, through the oratorio. Stutzmann’s Messiah didn’t dawdle around much, but saved the world at an accelerated pace. Her style was on the punchier side and this appeared to be well-matched to that of the chorus, the University of Maryland Concert Choir, directed by Edward MacLary. That they relished the high drama of the work was evident at every point. Key to their interpretation was very deliberate vocal punctuation and emphatic articulation. They specialized in sudden swells of sound and in texts which called for rhythmic attack. There were many such from “Surely He hath borne our griefs” to “All we like sheep”.

At its best, this conveyed theological drama with dynamism; at its worst, it could come across as a little too jaunty, even vociferous. It did not tend to privilege either the sacral or the solemn moments, which were less lovingly dwelt upon. While the “Glory to God” was joyous, the immediately following “and peace on earth” was hushed but not in the least numinous. Peace on earth isn’t supposed to sound dull and unpolished: it is supposed to be holy ground. “Behold the Lamb”, which gravely opens the Passion narrative of Part II, was also disappointing. And then there is the chorus. Does the Hallelujah Chorus make or break a Messiah? It is hard to avoid seeing it as the axis around which the whole work turns. American audiences rise to their feet on principle for the duration (unconscious homage to the last King George that they had anything to do with?): the collective ritualized posture was a little distracting, and in the event, undeserved. Tension was not effectively built; there was not that notching up of pitch and of glory. In crashing bad form, the celebrated pause before the final chords was filled by somebody’s (the conductor’s?) deliberately audible intake of breath; the same went for the final Amen at the end of the work. Such silences in the score are already full of meaning and must be allowed to resonate to the depths of the hall and the heart: why cheapen them in such an obvious and self-indulgent fashion?

The soloists were all making their NSO debuts tonight, and good things, in particular, poured forth from baritone Stephen Powell, in a richly solemn voice. He was the adamantine point of reference in the whole. Contralto Sara Mingardo had difficulty dominating the orchestra; more unfortunate still was the paucity of her dramatic depth. Her exquisite aria “He was despised” is one of the most tragic moments in the whole musical canon: such ineffable melancholy was all brushed away in vocal and orchestral matter-of-factness. The exuberance of the Hallelujah Chorus does not stand without the pitiful depths of what has gone before; there is something lacking about the whole if the two aren’t respected in their emotional extremes. Soprano Emöke Baráth was light and pleasing if not over-given to exploring her arias’ dramatic possibilities; tenor Lawrence Wiliford was smooth-voiced, although not especially full.

I harbor an idle thought that a truly world class Messiah should have even the most devout atheist almost at the point of getting doubts. This most Christian of musical works, one written in an age of secular Enlightenment, is still capable of bringing on a sense of redemptive catharsis, however inchoate, when performed with due magnificence. Based on tonight’s performance, I don’t think Dawkins need worry over-much. Stutzmann’s Messiah was jolly enough but we weren’t elevated to the realm of the supernatural.