The holiday season typically sees the arrival of two very different Messiahs: the sing-along version, which is hosted by Tafelmusik at Massey Hall, and the participation-free version with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It's gratifying to be able to hear the piece in tune, even if it's somewhat lacking in festive cheer. This year, it was English conductor Nicholas McGegan who led a responsible reading of Handel's now-classic oratorio, infusing some dramatic and lyrical touches into a largely unruffled evening.

Nicholas McGegan © Steve J Sherman
Nicholas McGegan
© Steve J Sherman

McGegan's approach to a piece well-known by choristers all over was on the brisk side, though not exactly dry. Aside from some impressively jowl-waggling Sturm und Drang textures, the double-dotted French rhythms could sometimes have used a little more snap. But McGegan also authored some of the performance's finest touches, for instance in the soprano aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth", when string brio gives way to soaring lines with the softest of take-offs. 

The soloists on this evening were a distinctive mix of vocal personalities, and the overall effect was nicely varied for interest. Soprano Yulia Van Doren sang with a very light touch, dispatching runs with ease and putting forth a pure tone of searing clarity. She was accompanied in the upper register by mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis, who lived more in the darker lows. Levis has a good sense of the breath of Handel's phrases, always drawing the larger picture around a vocal effect. She sang the less sunlit numbers, such as "But who may abide the day of His coming?", with gravelly conviction, explosive consonants, and even the occasional expressive slide.

Tenor Isaiah Bell sang with sensitivity and feeling, drawing out the spaces within his leaps. Where Van Doren was a hummingbird, Bell was molasses, warming up the oozy middles of long-held notes. Sometimes this approach resulted in a lack of razor-sharp clarity when it came to pitch, and the upper register did not always have the clarion sharpness needed to fully punch out of the orchestra. Alongside him, Daniel Okulitch was a fire-and-brimstone bass, relishing the resonances of the deep that generate Van Doren's upper harmonics.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir sang with exceptional diction (especially the women) and a finely-tuned sense of vowel-matching, especially in the murky terrain of the English diphthong. In SATB singing the balance sounded fine, though in contrapuntal passages the men didn't come through as clearly as the women. 

Overall, this was a talented and well-read version of Messiah, which only grew in conviction as the night wore on. Yet had anyone forgotten which performance they were attending, they would quickly have been put right: in the middle of the music's celebrations, during a particularly restless pause, McGegan turned to give the audience an admonitory glare.