A sampling of performances of Handel's "Messiah" presented by the Baltimore Symphony and the Handel Choir of Baltimore.

With certain great works of music, I find that limiting my exposure to them actually leaves me more appreciative. I won't list all of said works, but will fess up that Handel's "Messiah" is one of them.

It has been several years since I listened to a complete performance of the oratorio, so this holiday season, I decided I would at least revisit Part One, the portion of the score directly related to Christmastime.


On Sunday afternoon, I stopped by for Part One of the Handel Choir of Baltimore's presentation at Grace Methodist Church. The rewards began with the very able Handel Period Instrument Orchestra, providing a subtly colorful, expressive foundation.

Tempos set by conductor Arian Khaefi provided momentum, but breathing room, too. There was a gracefulness to his phrase-sculpting. The choir maintained admirable clarity of diction, sensitivity to dynamics and, except for occasional fuzziness in the men's voices, cohesiveness of tone.

Among the soloists, tenor Ian McEuen stood for the sweetness of his voice and his technical refinement; during the "Comfort ye" recitative, he included an impressive single-note crescendo that grew from a most delicate pianissimo. Soprano Karen Vuong, mezzo Carla Jablonski and bass-baritone Andrew Pardini made sturdy contributions. Ornamentation was on the discreet side.

My other experience with Part One of "Messiah" this season offered something of a night-and-day contrast with the Handel Choir.

On Dec. 4 at Meyerhoff Hall, Edward Polochick led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual performance of the oratorio. I had forgotten just how fast and furious his approach is. I remember that musicality survived that velocity when I last heard his interpretation. Not so much this time.

Soft dynamics and elegance of line were in short supply, as much from the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Choir as from the BSO. An awful lot of the singing and playing sounded just plain pushy; opportunities to savor Handel's marvelous word-painting and mood-creating proved unexpectedly infrequent.

At the speed most of the music was taken, the choristers understandably blurred some words and notes in the more florid passages. Still, they blended smoothly and achieved a rich tonal mass in "Glory to God" and in the final measures of "His yoke is easy."

Under the circumstances, it wasn't surprising to hear the excellent quartet of soloists adopt an all-out operatic style, as if to compete with the aggression around them. Some of their ornamentation went over the top, stylistically, but certainly brought abundant personality to the proceedings.

Shawn Mathey's warm tenor and supple articulation hit the spot. Soloman Howard used his resonant bass to mold sensitively nuanced phrases, making "For behold, darkness"/"The people that walked in darkness" a major highlight.

Soprano Jennifer O'Laughlin sang brightly, and mezzo Mary Phillips used her plush, vibrant mezzo to  compelling effect.

Polochick's accompanying on the harpsichord was as fluent as ever, but, from where I was sitting, the instrument sounded oddly loud, threatening to turn the piece into an elongated concerto.