'Messiah': great performance by symphony and chorus

December 21, 1990|By Robert Haskins

Miraculously composed in under three weeks, Handel's "Messiah" is one of Western culture's most spectacular achievements. Since its premiere nearly 250 years ago, the work has never vanished from the stage, enjoying performances of every conceivable interpretation with forces of every imaginable size. While some of these performances, surely, have served Handel's music better than others, all have affirmed the quintessentially elusive character which distinguishes all great masterworks.

The "Messiah" given Wednesday by the Baltimore Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Edward Polochick, was the most engaging heard in a long time. For that, the credit is largely Mr. Polochick's.

One immediately apparent mark of interpretive originality is Mr. Polochick's choice of tempos, all of which were generally quite brisk. The approach was powerfully visceral, and brought clearly to the fore the oratorio's dramatic character.

Occasionally, fast tempos proved too much for the BSO Chorus, as in Part I's "And He shall purify" and Part II's "All we like sheep have gone astray." More judicious choices would have preserved the individuality of Mr. Polochick's interpretation without compromising the music's integrity.

Nevertheless, in the bizarrely rapid chorus "Surely he hath borne our griefs" (Part II) and, in particular, the chorus "His yoke is easy" which closes Part I, Mr. Polochick created a sense of euphoria absolutely individual and extremely compelling.

Less successful was the extensive ornamentation added to the score. While the practice of embellishing certain expressive melodic resting points and other passages was well documented in the baroque period, the elaborations chosen for this performance sometimes seemed to distort the score rather than enhance it.

Indeed, the virtuoso cadenzas occasionally added to the solo vocal parts, more often than not, made them sound more like bel canto opera than baroque oratorio.

Despite these occasional lapses, the soloists -- soprano Sheryl Woods, mezzo-soprano Christine Cairns, tenor Kip Wilborn, and baritone David Arnold -- were strong throughout the formidable solo arias of "Messiah." In particular, Mr. Arnold's performance was outstanding for its sensitivity and majestic bearing.

Like truly great music, truly great performances say something new and unexpected, making us discover or rediscover the inexpressible. Provocative and dramatic, the Edward Polochick/BSO "Messiah" is unquestionably such a performance.

'The Messiah'

The Baltimore Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Edward Polochick.

When: Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: Sold out.

Call: 783-8000

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