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SCRUTINY | Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Mozartian Messiah Is A Unique Experience

By Joseph So on December 19, 2019

The TSO’s Mozartian version of Handel’s classic Messiah is enjoyable, bolstered by top-class Canadian soloists, and the always impressive Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs 'Messiah'
Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs ‘Messiah’ (Photo : Jag Gundu)

Jane Archibald, sop.; Emily D’Angelo, mezzo; Isaiah Bell, ten.; Russell Braun, bar.; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, David Fallis, Conductor; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Shelley, conductor. Roy Thomson Hall, Dec. 17, 2019.

December is “Messiah Month” in Canada’s largest city. If you are a classical music fan, you’re likely to encounter numerous offerings, in venues big and small, from intimate Baroque ensembles to a full orchestra playing on modern instruments. Whatever your taste — from traditional to experimental — you’re likely to find one you like.

As someone who grew up with this piece, December is not complete without attending several performances, although in recent years, I’ve gotten away from my Messiah-bingeing tendencies and limit myself to one. Given my preference for Messiah with large orchestra and a full sound, the Cecil B. DeMille style if you will, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra fits the bill.

That said, in recent seasons, the TSO Messiah has undergone a downsizing, not in quality to be sure, but in numbers. For example, last year’s version conducted by Johannes Debus had only about 30 or so in the orchestra. Last evening, I counted about 40 and a bit, much more intimate than in the past. The choral forces remain substantial, with the celebrated Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

This year, the TSO Messiah is unusual that it’s a version arranged by Mozart. In the excellent essay found in the program by Margot Rejskind, she outlines the genesis of this Mozartian Messiah. Composed by Handel the Londoner in 1742, it wasn’t performed in Germany until 30 years later, and then only occasionally.

Soloists and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 'Messiah'
Soloists, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in ‘Messiah’ (Photo : Jag Gundu)

It remained in obscurity until one Viennese nobleman Baron Gottfired van Swieten took it upon himself to popularize it in German-speaking countries by commissioning a German translation and a new arrangement by Mozart in 1789. The TSO performance was sung in its original English text, with some modifications.

Rejskind points out in her essay that some of the modifications were made by van Swieten: “Van Swieten’s libretto cuts the chorus “Let all the angels of God”, the aria “Thou art gone up high”, the B-section of “The trumpet shall sound”, and turns the aria “If God be for us” into a recitative.” Another interesting change involves the famous “For unto us a Child is born.” The beautiful choral number opens with the quartet of soloists before the chorus enters upon the word “Wonderful.”

There was the addition of woodwinds in place of the organ continuo, and the use of trombones replacing the trumpets. Well, this means “The Trumpet shall sound” is now trumpet-less! It’s been re-assigned to horns and trombones. To be honest, it takes some getting used to. I for one missed the trumpets — especially when their thrilling sounds come from various locations in the balconies.

While one could quibble with the musical structure of the Mozartian version, it remains enjoyable, to be sure. Alexander Shelley made an auspicious TSO debut, leading the orchestra in a very crisp reading of the score. He’s a fine conductor, and let’s hope he’ll be back. His fast tempo, together with the cuts in this version, means that the performance only lasted two and a half hours including intermission.

Soloists Emily D'Angelo and Jane Archibald (l-r) perform 'The Messiah' with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Soloists Emily D’Angelo and Jane Archibald (l-r) perform ‘The Messiah’ with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo : Jag Gundu)

The soloists were top-class Canadian singers, and they did not disappoint. The crystalline tones of Jane Archibald’s high soprano sounded lovely. As is typical for high voices, the text didn’t come through all the time. Emily D’Angelo’s gleaming mezzo was a pleasure, although I think the tessitura of her music was a bit low for her, as she occasionally pushed her chest register, like in the opening recitative, and in “He was despised.” She was at her best in the higher reaches of “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart.”

Tenor Isaiah Bell sang with smooth, plangent tone in “Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley,” the long phrases dispatched with plenty of breath. His voice, with its well controlled vibrato, is ideal in oratorio. Baritone Russell Braun, the veteran among them with a 30-year career, sang with still impressive tone, and there’s a sense of foreboding to his tone that’s so special in this work. And, one can count on the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir to deliver each and every time. It was at its best in “Surely, He hath borne our griefs,” offering up thrilling tone and impressive power.

Many Messiah fans, yours truly included, enjoy the many interesting variations given by the TSO over the years — who can forget Sir Andrew’s antics in “All we like sheep?” Will this Mozartian Messiah become a favourite? Only time will tell.

Performances on Dec. 20, 21 at 8 p.m.; Dec. 22 at 3 p.m. Details 


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Joseph So
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