Trinity Church’s ‘Messiah’ Is Still the Gold Standard

Beyond the start of “Messiah” season, this was a banner week for early music in New York. On Saturday, the Miller Theater hosted the Tallis Scholars at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan, part of the ensemble’s 50th-anniversary tour. And yet more Handel: On Sunday, Harry Bicket and the English Concert continued their annual series of concert performances of his operas and oratorios at Carnegie Hall with “Rodelinda.”

“Messiah” is Christmas music, but not entirely, since Jesus’ birth occupies only a few minutes of this long meditation on his life and example. The Tallis Scholars, though, offered a real Christmas program of largely Renaissance works focused on the shepherds who receive the news of the Nativity.

Under their founder and director, Peter Phillips, these 10 singers displayed the floating silkiness, light without seeming insubstantial, that has been Tallis’s trademark over its remarkable career.

With the parts of Clemens’s “Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis” interwoven with other pieces, the concert was notable for its exploration of different composers’ treatments of the same texts. Pedro de Cristo’s straightforwardly lyrical, almost folk-inflected “Quaeramus cum pastoribus” preceded Giovanni Croce’s grander version. And Jacob Obrecht’s plainchant-and-elaboration “Salve regina” came before Peter Philip’s later, more declamatory one.

At Carnegie, the English Concert brought its characteristic spirited polish — moderate yet exciting — to “Rodelinda,” a work that Bicket has helped make a sterling recent addition to the Metropolitan Opera’s standard repertory. The cast of six was individually impressive and, even better, well matched. The soprano Lucy Crowe’s voice warmed in the title role as the afternoon went on, and her portrayal was gripping from the start. The countertenor Iestyn Davies, as her believed-to-be-dead husband, Bertarido, had, as usual, special time-stopping persuasiveness in slow music.

It was refined work. But the performance over the past week that has lingered with me most is clear. If someone asks for a recommendation — for the holidays, or for music in New York in general — my answer is the same as it’s been for years: Trinity’s “Messiah.”

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