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A revelatory 'Messiah' from Handel and Haydn Society

When you've done it for 192 years, how do you find something new to say about "Messiah"? The Handel and Haydn Society found a way this year: by inviting the brilliant young British conductor Laurence Cummings , whose spirited, detailed, and warm-hearted view of the score was a revelation. Most of the sold-out Symphony Hall audience on Sunday afternoon -- the last of three performances -- was on its feet at the end.

Cummings chose the full, three-part score, in a 1753 version that substitutes countertenor for soprano in the final aria, "If God is with us. "

He also played continuo on the harpsichord when he was not hopping up and down and jabbing the air with cues. He set quick tempos, brought each number to a careful close, and concentrated on quick, dramatic segues.

Countertenor Daniel Taylor 's singing was clear and expressive, and he underlined "If God is with us" with beautiful, soft singing and a final ornament that set a seal on the whole piece.

The other soloists -- soprano Sari Gruber , tenor Iain Paton , and bass James Maddalena -- were good enough, if less individual in timbre or personal in utterance.

The chorus of 33 singers is too small for a hall this large and dry. (The Dublin music room where Handel premiered "Messiah" seated 60!) And they never created the necessary wash of sound at climaxes. However, once one had adjusted one's expectations, their lovely sound and responsiveness became riveting.

Nothing was more beautiful than the final "Amen," which Cummings took at a stately pace that gathered sonority and slowed to a final emphasis that seemed to close the gap between period performance and the big sound loved by many 20th-century conductors.

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