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Alessandrini's Fleet, Vibrant 'Messiah'

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Thomas Forrest Kelly, Five Nights: Five Musical Premieres
We have reviewed Handel's Messiah in many different guises: from the overblown Goossens/Beecham arrangement to an approximation of the performing forces that Handel had at the first performance in Dublin, from provocative stagings of the work to the mostly harmless. It is clear that the work is over-performed, but even we cannot resist the chance to hear such a beautiful piece of music if the combination of performers and interpretative ideas line up the right way. Thus it was that I took Master Ionarts to his first performance of Messiah on Friday night, a stripped-down version in terms of performing forces presented by members of the National Symphony Orchestra.

This year's guest conductor was Rinaldo Alessandrini, best known as the leader of the stylish Italian historically informed performance ensemble Concerto Italiano. Alessandrini led a very small selection of the NSO, suited to Handel's original orchestration: about 20 string players, including two double basses, plus pairs of oboes, bassoons, trumpets (particularly fine), and timpani. For the continuo part, he chose to have only portative organ (played impeccably by the redoubtable William Neal), rather than the combination of harpsichord and organ played by Handel at the first performances. The instruments were modern rather than the historical ones (or copies thereof) used normally by Alessandrini's group, and for the chorus he had a mixed ensemble, rather than the traditional British combination of men and boys -- and a small, agile one at that, in the 35 or so young singers of the University of Maryland Concert Choir.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Concentrated power of NSO's 'Messiah' revives an old chestnut (Washington Post, December 18)
True to expectations from his recordings, Alessandrini made rather daring tempo choices, especially in the choral movements, which brought in the first part of the oratorio in what may be record time at around 50 minutes. The collegiate chorus held its own in the many rushing melismas (over-demonstrated visually by one gyrating tenor in the top row who turnèd a little too much to his own way), prepared well by Edward Maclary, but intonation was not always clean and at times one wished for a little more raw power. Mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova was the best of the quartet of soloists, an opulent voice with a lustrous bottom range: the only fault -- in which she was only the worst of four offenders -- was a less than refined style of English pronunciation ("from shime and speeteeng"). Soprano Klara Ek had the agility to match Alessandrini's tempo demands, even adding ornate embellishments and cadenzas to some pieces, but at times the tone was too warbly for my taste. Tenor Michele Angelini and baritone Joan Martín-Royo sang well, but without much individuality or panache.

Kirill Karabits will be the guest conductor for the first NSO concerts of the New Year (January 13 to 15), a program that features Silvestrov's Elegy and Sibelius's first symphony, as well as Sergey Khachatryan playing Shostakovich's second violin concerto.

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