After hearing so many quickly assembled performances of Handel's Messiah, I found in the Philadelphia Orchestra's Friday performance at the Kimmel Center such a distinctive and specifically rendered point of view that some getting-used-to time was necessary. From the opening notes, every phrase questioned, answered, and probed the last. Among strings, vibrato was at a bare minimum. Then, Moment Two . . .
The majestic choruses and emotionally packed arias were all there, but didn't depend on their more imposing qualities to make an impression. In fact, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin's singular vision of Messiah - I've never heard anything like it in concert or on recordings - pursued a clear musical and philosophic narrative deeply wedded to the words at the core of the piece. Mostly, the English diction in this meditation on the birth, death and resurrection of Christ was clear and natural.
The 40-voice chorus and somewhat larger orchestra were purposefully blended, often sounding as much like a single entity as Handel's layered orchestration and vocal writing allows. The usual harpsichord was replaced by a chamber organ that blended better with its sonic surroundings and gave the performance more of a church aura. More cerebral priorities were apparent in the somewhat eccentric phrase readings, which had deferred payoffs in revealing the purely musical structure.
Some emblematic moments: The Philadelphia Voices (a good, newly assembled chorus) often seemed to be held back - until it wasn't, in some of the darker crucifixion choruses that made particularly strong impressions. The Hallelujah Chorus didn't shake the rafters, and thus the great music that follows didn't seem anticlimactic.
When soprano Karina Gauvin sang about seeing God (with strangely cloudy diction), the quiet, intense awe she projected was possible through close collaboration with Nézet-Séguin, who drew a precise, expressive sound from orchestra. And when the chorus sang its final "Amen," the second syllable went soft and ethereal.
The five soloists were wonderful. Diction aside, Gauvin has such command of Handelian style that she finds room to project a viewpoint even in the most intricate passagework. Tenor Andrew Staples was the most elegant vocalist but lacked personality. Others displayed rich vocal timbre while also minding the intimacy of Nézet-Séguin's conception.
Few singers get so much interpretive mileage out of so much sound as mezzo Karen Cargill (her readings of Elgar's Sea Pictures are to die for). Countertenor Christophe Dumaux has nearly as much vocal luster. Bass-baritone Matthew Rose, a Philadelphia presence during his Curtis Institute years, now commands a burnished voice with a clean silhouette one rarely hears in large instruments.