A new Messiah

It might seem to be a conundrum worthy of a religious scholar: how do we know the real Messiah?  And even though we’re not speaking of a saviour but rather about Handel’s oratorio, the topic may as well be a matter of faith, given the partisan viewpoints surrounding different approaches.

The choices seem generational.  The Toronto Symphony’s partnership with the Mendelssohn Choir—billed as “Toronto’s Biggest Messiah”—is the one I recognize from my childhood, particularly Lois Marshall singing a persuasive “I know that my redeemer liveth.” That big and broad approach is also found on the classic recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham Messiah, including Canadian Jon Vickers’ reading of  “Ev’ry Valley.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uGCyCQ4760)

In the 1970s and 80s I had my eyes opened by a succession of recordings using an entirely different sound, purporting to use instruments played in the manner of the time.  One heard epithets such as “authentic” and “original” even though the techniques for the instruments (eg horns without valves) appeared to have been at least partially lost, given the uneven results in some of the early recordings.  But there’s no question we were being treated to an important revolution, a new valorization of the text above all, and a new understanding of performance and virtuosity.  Conductors of this generation were a new breed of scholar-conductor, looking professorial unlike the previous generation of egotistical maestros who used to strut the podium.

That new generation of musicians –who started a kind of alternative movement of performance –has in fact matured.  I couldn’t help but notice how the players in Tafelmusik appearing in the recent broadcast of Messiah on Bravo have grown up.  While Tafelmusik sometimes venture gingerly into the romantic repertoire (even though others such as Norrington & the London Classical Players have been far bolder), they appear to have a strong preference for baroque music.  Thank goodness David Fallis & Opera Atelier have coaxed them out of their apparent comfort zone to undertake a series of Mozart operas that have been nothing short of astonishing.

And now I’ve encountered a new generation.  Last night I saw & heard Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon making a new claim for historicity & musicianship.  The Dublin Messiah is to be understood as the original version from 1742.  There are substantial differences from the Messiah one usually hears.  What we heard used an even smaller ensemble than Tafelmusik’s already small orchestra

  • according to Tafelmusik’s website they have eighteen permanent members, whereas Aradia played with sixteen (admittedly that doesn’t mean Tafelmusik always uses all 18)
  • Tafelmusik chorus have 20-24 singers whereas Aradia employed just fourteen
  • perhaps most importantly, we were in the intimate confines of Glenn Gould Studio which holds 350 compared to either Massey Hall’s 2700 seats or Trinity-St Paul’s 700+

I really meant what I was saying about a new generation; they’re visibly younger, or maybe it’s just that I suddenly noticed that I’m closer in age to the members of Tafelmusik than those in Aradia.

Part I was taken without any breaks for applause, and not because the audience didn’t believe they deserved it; as a result we experienced an unprecedented dramatic tension, as the drama flowed relentlessly forward.

I’ve never heard a Messiah so clearly.  According to the program notes, the size of venue & ensemble correspond closely to that of the first performance in Dublin.  As a resultas well as because of the sensitivity of Mallon’s approach, intelligibility was never an issue.  The solos were compelling monologues while the choruses were miniature dramas.

There were so many highlights, that I hesitate for fear of omitting something wonderful.  For example, the pastoral symphony that precedes the soprano’s description of the shepherds’ encounter with the angels was the most boisterous and rustic sounding sinfonia I’ve yet encountered.  Usually we get something timid and quietly respectful, as if the orchestra were afraid to wake the sleeping shepherds; not so with Mallon.

The choruses that open Part Two were extremely dramatic with a frenetic pace, and an almost painful insistence on a quick cut-off from the chorus to maximize clarity.  Sometimes Mallon allowed the chorus to be beautiful as in “Lift up your heads” and “All we, like sheep”, while at other times intelligent articulation took precedence.

Several numbers sound brand-new in this version.  Instead of the elaborate “And who may abide the day of his coming” to which we’re accustomed, the Dublin version gives us a very brief recitative before the chorus are plunged into “And He shall purify.”  With such a tiny ensemble in the intimate space one could hear every note of this choral tour de force.

Of the soloists, I wanted to single out tenor Joseph Schnurr, who sang with a kind of evangelical fervor, his face admittedly deep in his book.  Although my first impression was conflicted, in Part II his exchanges with the chorus won me over, in their resemblance to passionate Biblical readings.  I was especially persuaded by “He shalt break them”, an especially difficult piece of text that Mallon made even more angular than usual, perhaps as lead-in to his most unorthodox reading of the Hallelujah Chorus, begun almost in a whisper.  The polite audience finally came to life at this point –with a little prompting from the Maestro—in recognition of the sparkling reading.

I can’t help but wonder whether The Dublin Messiah will become an annual event.  I hope so.

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2 Responses to A new Messiah

  1. Ivars Taurins says:

    I was interested to read your comments about Messiah performances in Toronto, especially concerning Tafelmusik. I have to say that I was amused that you would compare Tafelmusik’s Sing-along Messiah (both the live performance at Massey Hall and the Bravo film at Koerner Hall) with Aradia’s “Dublin” performance this year.
    The Tafelmusik phenomenon of the Sing-along Messiah has, besides our performance style, very little to do with our “concert-version” performances that we present at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.
    In those concerts, we perform Messiah uncut, often with a number of the alternate versions that Handel wrote (This year, these included the arioso version “But lo, the angel of the Lord”, the alto version of “How beautiful are the feet” and the original bass version of “Thou art gone up on high”).
    You also seem to imply that at a Tafelmusik performance of Messiah there is applause between the numbers… on the contrary, each of the 3 parts in Messiah is a continuous dramatic narrative. On the other hand, at our Sing-along we do naturally allow the audience, as fitting the occasion, to express their appreciation.
    I should also point out that Tafelmusik has been performing music beyond the scope of the Baroque Era for many, many years (without the “coaxing” from our colleagues at Opera Atelier, nor with the “gingerly” hesitation, you suggest): we have performed and recorded dozens of Haydn symphonies and masses, the complete Beethoven piano concertos and symphonies, not to mention Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and most recently, with Kent Nagano, Rossini.
    The choir has performed 19th-and 20th-century repertoire including Brahms, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, and Pärt. Tafelmusik has also explored and premiered many contemporary works by Canadian composers.

    Thank you for your informative blog –
    best wishes,
    Ivars Taurins,
    Director, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir
    Principal Baroque Conductor, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for the comments, good Master Handel aka Maestro Taurins. It’s true I haven’t seen a Tafelmusik Messiah in quite awhile, so my remarks must have seemed ill-informed (ha or just plain wrong), but were simply juxtaposing my recent experiences (Aradia + the Bravo broadcast). Thanks for setting me straight.

      As far as programming is concerned, I’m simply going by what I see in the brochures every year. Of course marketing is an issue. Everyone knows Beethoven isn’t a popular composer, so of course, why program him (….said tongue firmly in cheek of course)? Tafelmusik (the orchestra that is) could lay claim to any and all repertoire up to 1900 and even beyond, as the best orchestra in the city, if not the whole of Canada. For example when I went to see the TSO perform Damnation de Faust conducted by Dutoit, I felt this was their turf, even though they really didn’t do a great job, partially hampered by the still mediocre acoustic of Roy Thompson Hall. Maybe Tafelmusik doesn’t have enough players for that kind of venture? And why rock the boat, when so many other organizations are floundering financially?

      Hm, MAYBE Aradia & Tafelmusik could do a joint concert to play Berlioz?

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