Music Review: ‘Messiah,’ From New York Philharmonic

December 19th, 2012

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

From left, the soprano Layla Claire, the countertenor Tim Mead and the conductor Gary Thor Wedow with members of the New York Philharmonic string section on Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall.

December is a decidedly gluttonous month for “Messiah” fans in New York, who can feast on myriad versions offered by ensembles across the city. The New York Philharmonic wades energetically into the “Messiah” fray each season with five consecutive performances, a testament (not that any proof is needed) to this oratorio’s enduring popularity.

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Since its 1742 premiere in Dublin, this Handel work has sometimes been bloated to grandiose proportions. In 1883, for example, the conductor Michael Costa added crashing cymbals for a performance at the Crystal Palace in London that had 4,000 singers.

The Philharmonic could opt to perform “Messiah” with its full forces, but in recent years it has emulated the lean period-instrument aesthetic now in vogue, recruiting early-music specialists like Ton Koopman to lead its annual renditions. Gary Thor Wedow, making his debut with the Philharmonic on Tuesday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, brought substantial experience leading historically informed performances to this excellent “Messiah.” Mr. Wedow, who played the continuo part on the virginal during the recitatives, conducted the New York Choral Artists and a pared-down orchestra with harpsichord and organ.

In addition to Mr. Wedow’s debut with the orchestra, this “Messiah” proved notable for the Philharmonic debuts of two gifted young singers, the soprano Layla Claire and the countertenor Tim Mead. Wearing an elegant green gown that added a splash of festive color to the proceedings, Ms. Claire, who has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in recent seasons, sang with a lustrous sheen and clean coloratura. Mr. Mead made an equally strong impression with his luminous voice, impeccable control and expressive phrasing. The bass Alastair Miles sang with conviction; the tenor Kenneth Tarver had some shaky moments during his solos.

From the crisp, energetic overture, Mr. Wedow led a fleet, lithe orchestral performance, aptly complemented by the buoyant singing of the chorus. The trumpeter Matthew Muckey played the famous solo with flair. The audience, standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus, applauded and cheered at the end of that section.

“Messiah” continues through Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center; (212) 875-5656,

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