The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir have done what no other Canadian period instrument ensemble has done before: produce a complete commercial recording of Handel's Messiah. When it drops on Oct. 30, this recording will mark a milestone in Canadian music history. You can sample selections below.
Tafelmusik has made an annual tradition of presenting concert performances of Handel's Messiah since 1981. All of those performances have been conducted by Ivars Taurins, founding director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, and it is Taurins who leads the new recording.
"There's always something new to discover and marvel at in this great work," wrote Taurins in an email to CBC Classical. "Handel's keen sense of musical architecture and drama, finely honed from his work in opera, creates a piece which has tremendous impetus, intensity and balance. You can see it in his manuscript of Messiah: his pen couldn't get his thoughts on the page fast enough!"
What stars aligned to make this recording happen? Taurins explained that moving Tafelmusik's annual performances of Messiah from its home base, Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, to the newly constructed, state-of-the-art Koerner Hall was a major factor.
"Having a stellar cast of soloists, all of them familiar with working in the Tafelmusik 'family,' was another strong point in favour of this project," he added. "If there was to be a time to document our Messiah, this most certainly was it."
The quartet of soloists is a 50/50 mix of Canadian and international talent: Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, English countertenor Robin Blaze, English-German tenor Rufus Müller and Canadian baritone Brett Polegato. Fine singers all, but the real star of this – and any – recording of Handel's Messiah is the choir. Carefully chosen by Taurins, the members of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir combine to create a finely tuned machine, capable of both detailed articulation and full-blown power, as this excerpt from Part 1 reveals:
Chorus: And He shall purify.
As in Greek drama, the choruses in Handel's oratorios not only comment on the action, but also paint the larger brushstrokes of the plot.
"It's hard to single out one particular piece in Messiah and give it more points for its 'genius factor,'" wrote Taurins, when prompted by CBC Classical for his favourite section, "but there is one segment that moves me every time I direct the work. It starts with the tenor recitative, 'All they that see him, laugh him to scorn.' The brutal string accompaniment portraying Christ's lashing and the surging of the crowd, catapults us into a seething, fugal turba chorus straight out of a Bach Passion, where the crowd hisses, cackles and mocks Jesus with the words, 'He trusted in God that He would deliver him; let Him deliver him, if He delight in him.'"
Chorus: He trusted in God.
Underpinning the whole performance, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra plays with glowing sound and the assurance that only comes with experience.
"We knew that we had something special to say about the work, having performed it continuously for 30 years," said Taurins. "There is a unified sense of understanding and intent in Tafelmusik's Messiah that comes from this long-term relationship with the work."
Among the most popular numbers in Messiah are the solo arias. Tenor Müller sets the bar high in the opening solo of the work, Comfort ye/Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, with precise intonation, crystal-clear diction and an affinity for drama that explains why he's one of the leading Bach evangelists of our day. Countertenor Blaze has no trouble with the low tessitura of the expansive Part 2 aria, He was despised, whose long lines are sung with laser-like purity. And baritone Polegato's The trumpet shall sound, in Part 3, is a tableau of vocal artistry in which the beautifully nuanced B section sets up a ritornello that nearly boils over with exuberance.
A Handel specialist, soprano Gauvin's performance stands out as the most complete among the four. She uses her many qualities – an opulent voice, a deep understanding of the idiom and a mastery of English diction – to serve the text, making her arias the most spiritual, transcendent moments of the recording, none more so than the final aria of the oratorio:
Aria: If God be for us.
Tafelmusik's new recording of Handel's Messiah will be released on Oct. 30. It is already available for download on iTunes.
Looking ahead to December, here are details on Tafelmusik's annual concert performances of Messiah:
Dec. 19–22, 2012, at 7:30 p.m.
Koerner Hall, Toronto
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Ivars Taurins, conductor
Joanne Lunn, soprano
Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Douglas Williams, baritone
What are your favourite choruses and arias in Handel's Messiah? Let us know in the comments below, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sample Karina Gauvin's album, Prima Donna
Tafelmusik celebrates 30 years of choral singing
Watch Brett Polegato sing Fauré’s Dans la fôret de septembre
on Oct 11, 2012