'Real Thing' not real; 'Measure' too light; 'Bishop' won't fly; 'Messiah'

A 'Messiah' of diminuendo Handel & Haydn Society director Thomas Dunn has always dedicated himself to the presentation of music - notably Bach and Handel - with what critics have called ''reduced'' forces.

That might explain why audiences at his ''Messiah'' performances last weekend may have come away wondering why they hadn't been awestruck by the mammoth choruses and heavy orchestration that have been traditional with this work since Mozart himself reorchestrated it in 1789.

Dunn used the same size orchestra (33) that Handel himself used and nearly the same number of voices (30 instead of 26 used in the first performance in Dublin, April 13, 1742).

So these were dainty performances by modern standards - perhaps owing to the size of Symphony Hall relative to the number of musicians. And perhaps owing to our built-in expectations of grandeur and epic scale with this work.

But perhaps not. With the wonderful exceptions of baritone Sanford Sylvan and soprano Elizabeth Pruett, the musicians seemed straitjacketed as well as few - as if they had been told to water down the emotion.

Violinists went easy on the vibrato and cut arcing lines painfully short - most notably playing the phrase ''Prince of Peace,'' from the Hallelujah Chorus, in a too terse, machine-gun staccato. This seemed indicative of a larger mandate not to exceed solemnity or express joy.

The chorus and other soloists did not project. Even the heraldic ''For Unto Us a Child Is Born'' seemed austere, stark. More than a problem of diction, it seemed an attitude toward the work - as if it were just notes on a page rather than a religious work.

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