There is a trinity of Messiahs this week in different venues running until the weekend. Although there are two others—Toronto Symphony in Andrew Davis’s re-orchestration employing the Mendelssohn Choir and Against the Grain’s choreographed version — I went to see Tafelmusik Orchestra & Chorus at Koerner Hall. The three are completely distinct:
- TSO offers the big fat sound
- AtG is the smallest ensemble and physically mobile
- Tafemusik’s is arguably the most authentic presentation of Handel’s sacred oratorio
Messiah is one of those works that stands alongside Hamlet or Beethoven’s 9th, works one encounters again and again in a lifetime. I had the additional pleasure of taking along a friend who hasn’t seen the work in awhile: a pleasure I heartily recommend. Seeing and hearing Messiah through the eyes & ears of the person beside you who’s revisiting their old friend, you get a fresh perspective. Or as an act of outreach you might consider taking someone to Messiah who has never seen it before: that is, if you’re able to find tickets to something so beloved by Torontonians. Some brave souls want to take in three Messiahs in one day later this week; check the hashtag #MessiahCrawl for further information. Clearly some people can handle a lot of Handel. And I can’t deny that I’ll be hearing this music again before the week is out.
To see Tafelmusik Orchestra & Chorus under Ivars Taurins performing for a knowledgeable crowd is to penetrate deeply into the work. As I look back on the evening, it’s a bit like a workshop, recalling lessons learned, insights offered by conductor, chorus, orchestra and four wonderful soloists: soprano Joanne Lunn, mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, tenor Rufus Müller and baritone Nathaniel Watson.
Authenticity –a word I used earlier –can be a bit of a can of worms, and wasn’t something I brought up in the interest of any sort of deep analysis, but rather to distinguish this experience from the other two on offer. The historically informed style mostly helps make the singing intelligible, brisk tempi that help soloists, although the chorus are at times pushed. When Tafelmusik sing “And He Shall Purify” –the chorus immediately following the lines “for He is like a refiner’s fire”—it is as though the singers themselves are undergoing a kind of purification trial-by-fire, in their unerring precision. Or at least that’s what I imagine, not wanting to attempt this myself. They make it sound easy.
My favourite chorus is one that seems to enact a kind of dialogue, one found in the original text of ”Lift Up Your Heads”. It’s a thrill watching the physical eloquence of Taurins leading the sections of the chorus, as he gets a genuine back and forth conversation happening before us, a miniature drama enacted within a few minutes.
Each soloist has opportunities to shine. Müller starts us off with two of the most visceral words in the entire work, provided one seizes that opportunity. When he sings “Comfort Ye” it’s truly an exhortation to take comfort, to relax, to feel better. The beauty of the voice is a great start, but there’s a gentleness in the way he seizes the moment, stopping us and the oratorio in our collective tracks, making us breathe and feel calmness. Nesi’s eloquence in the opening of Part II was especially welcome. I found myself especially attracted to the lower notes she sang, a wonderful rich colour that never impaired the clarity of her delivery in so many important lines, such as “behold your God”, and the entirety of “He was despised”. Watson did not thunder when he gave us the voice of God telling us he “will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land,” but rather a calm authority, clear & strong. Lunn employs a beautiful tone that grabs you every time she begins to sing, her unmistakeable sincerity adding an additional layer to the performance.
My head resounds with so many wonderful moments, I’m glad I’ll be hearing this music again before too long. How about you?