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Pittsburgh Symphony's 'Messiah' culminates in majestic splendor

| Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, 3:06 p.m.

Rarely is a famous masterpiece so well served as George Frideric Handel's “Messiah” was on Dec. 5 at Heinz Hall. Manfred Honeck led four strong vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a vibrantly devout performance.

Pittsburgh Symphony's music director, who excels at religious music, brought an individual perspective, which illuminated Handel's vision throughout its richly diverse musical settings. One can only be in awe of the composer's invention in creating music so well suited to the text, an unflagging inspiration, which is both felicitous and rings true.

Although Honeck is cognizant of current trends in musicology and performance practice, he was not limited by them in his approach to “Messiah.” Honeck used a relatively large string section, and had the strings bow closer to the bridge to add edge to their sound in some passages in which they were playing softly to let solo singers stand out. The “Hallelujah” Chorus went for big sonorities and achieved a perfect balance between majesty and exuberance at a somewhat slower tempo than many early music conductors prefer.

The Mendelssohn Choir was placed around the orchestra on stage, rather than on risers at the rear of the stage. The group was very well prepared by its acting music director, Maria Sensi Sellner, and sang with admirable clarity, balance and tone. Each section, the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, was fully articulate.

From the alto entrance in the first chorus, “And the glory of the Lord,” and through other beloved sections, such as “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep have gone astray,” straight through to the lengthy final “Amen,” the choir was superb in projecting the words with clear rich textures.

The vocal quartet was also impressive, starting with tenor Paul Appleby's precise expression in recitative “Comfort Ye.” Bass Paul Armin Edelmann, son of the great Viennese bass Otto Edelmann, has a big, rich voice. Although some of his passagework needed more shape, he projected the rhetoric with commanding authority.

Soprano Christina Landshamer brought the same beautifully focused singing across her entire range as was heard the night before in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's “Coronation Mass.” She was utterly delightful in the airs ”Rejoice greatly” and “I know my redeemer liveth.”

Counter-tenor Robin Blaze made A superb symphony debut in “Messiah.” His voice is both agile and very well centered and made his arias, such as “But, who may abide” and “He was despised,” high points of the evening. He was also a superb partner with Appleby in the duet “Death, where is thy sting?

The orchestra was as dramatically attuned as the singers. The bass line was always telling, while the oboes brought appealing brightness to the ensemble sound when they doubled the choir. Solo trumpet Charles Lirette was superb in the “Hallelujah” Chorus and “The trumpet shall sound.”

Noah Bendix-Balgley was the guest concertmaster, and played with delicious personality in solos with the vocal soloists.

The most unusual of Honeck's interpretative decisions was a slow tempo for the “Amen,” which was justified by the conductor's surprisingly dramatic concept culminating in majestic splendor.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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