In one of the early essays “On German Music”, Richard Wagner said, comparing the French to the Germans, that Germans “are generally more prone to fall beneath a foreign influence than is good for the preservation of a certain self-dependence.” He continues “Somebody once said: ‘The Italian uses music for love, the French for society, but the German as science. Perhaps it would be better put: The Italian is a singer, the Frenchman a virtuoso, the German a–musician.” (found on p 85 here )
He goes on to make the link back to the Chorale & JS Bach, that the particular genius of the German national theatre –the tendencies you see both in its compositions and the singers—began in the churches. Where there’s an extroversion you see in Italian opera, German opera is about a selfless blend as if you were encountering the same kind of skills you’d see in a Lutheran church service.
As I sat at a weekend performance in Brantford of Handel’s Messiah I wondered about the comparable genius of Canadians. There we were in a small town, in a church seating roughly 500 packed to the rafters for the annual reading by the Grand River Chorus & Grand River Baroque orchestra. Richard Cunningham conducted, with four excellent soloists (Tenor Andrew Haji, Bass-baritone Andrew Tees, Counter-tenor Daniel Cabena and soprano Lesley Bouza) in a town known more for its associations with First Nations or Wayne Gretzky than baroque music.
With the recent experience of Tafelmusik’s Messiah still resonating in my ears I feel more competent to reflect on period performance.
The numbers for Grand River Chorus (25 sopranos, 18 mezzos, 13 tenors and nine basses) are a more traditional complement, meaning that you hear emphatic soprano lines quite different from what you encounter with Tafelmusik Baroque Choir, who balance the four groups equally. Perhaps it’s more correct that Tafelmusik rarely gives us a big sound considering that “ff” doesn’t show up in scores until many decades after Handel.
There are a set of trade-offs necessary for authentic period performance:
- balance via numbers (a small choir in other words)
- balance via vocal technique: singing softer, more evenly
- balance via taste: a romantic-modern voice gets louder as you ascend the scale (which i’d argue is the natural tendency of the human voice), whereas in baroque as you ascend you stay even or even get softer
And so I don’t know that this small town reading of the Messiah necessarily shows the rigor I found at Koerner Hall. But then again this was a semi-pro performance (amateur choir, professional soloists & orchestra). The climaxes surrender to the old-style passions you find in the Beecham Messiah, where the maximum level is a full out fortissimo. It’s a lovely hybrid, in places authentic (indeed, Cunningham’s brave tempi were faster then what Taurins gave us earlier in the week, and Cunningham himself stepped forward as the second alto in the alto duo), in places more old-fashioned.
But it should surprise no one that in a country now producing so much great talent for the world that our small towns can be relied upon for more than hockey.