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Concert review: TSO Messiah a thing of beauty, but depth of Tafelmusik Messiah exceeds

By John Terauds on December 16, 2011

Old picture of Taurins as Handel in Tafelsmusik Singalong Messiah. Garry Beechey photo.
Old picture of Taurins as Handel in Tafelsmusik Singalong Messiah. Garry Beechey photo.

Here is my review of the Toronto Symphony and Tafelmusik interpretations of Handel’s Messiah, as sent to the Toronto Star last night (the Star review is published here):

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra advertises its concerts as “Toronto’s Favourite Messiah.” But it should really call it “Toronto’s Most Unpredictable Messiah.”

A different conductor and instrumental forces every December mean that the first performance is always a surprise.

Like wine, some vintages are better than others.

Last year’s full-orchestra extravaganza with Sir Andrew Davis’s reorchestrated score was a treat. This year’s slimmed-down version with Nicholas Kraemer, as nice as it is, becomes a letdown in comparison.

On the other hand, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra returns year after year with the same conductor, Ivars Taurins, who delves into the same 270-year-old score.

But rather than court the boredom of familiarity, Taurins improves on his spell for musical magic a little bit with every outing. What was an event to look forward to at Tafelmusik’s home at Trinity-St. Paul’s Church has become a seasonal landmark as this Messiah made its début at Koerner Hall.

There is nothing wrong with the TSO’s version of Handel’s extravagant and evocative 1741 musical setting of the foundations of Christian faith. Wednesday’s first performance at Roy Thomson Hall was a clean, subdued, elegantly polished interpretation strong on beautiful surfaces, yet weak in emotional depth.

Kraemer, conducting from a harpsichord in period-performance style, teased gorgeous work from the 32 modern instrument-toting TSO musicians clustered at the centre of the large stage.

The Mendelssohn Choir, outnumbering the instruments four-to-one, was a model of balance and poise. In “His Yoke is Easy,” the massive chorus sang as if on collective tiptoes.

The four vocal soloists – soprano Suzie LeBlanc, mezzo Meg Bragle, tenor Lawrence Williford and bass-baritone Andrew Foster Williams – were very good.

LeBlanc’s performance was positively luminous. In “Rejoice Greatly,” in particular, she was a hummingbird sucking the sweetest nectar from every note. Williford, the other Canadian soloist, transmitted an emotional core that otherwise seemed to dissipate in the cavernous hall.

On Thursday night, at Tafelmusik’s second performance of the year, the voices, music and mood at Koerner Hall melded in an uncommon alchemy as Taurins matched every detail of Charles Jennens’ text with a corresponding musical gesture.

Put simply, it’s impossible to imagine this quasi-operatic score getting a more appropriate  performance than this.

The period-instrument orchestra and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir gave it their all.

Further adding to the Messianic magic was a power quartet of soloists: soprano Karina Gauvin, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Rufus Müller and baritone Brett Polegato. They each, in their own way, sang as if their lives – and souls – depended on every note and word being true.

Koerner Hall, which is half the size of the TSO’s home, also proved to be a generous partner in the enjoyment of Tafelmusik’s Messiah, burnishing the sound with its kind acoustics, and helping provide more of a connection between the stage and audience.

Anyone looking for a keepsake of this paragon of a performance of Handel’s evergreen oratorio should note that this year’s Tafelmusik’s performances of Messiah are being recorded for future release on disc.

John Terauds

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