As Christmas is quickly approaching, it is only fair to take advantage of some of the musical gifts and traditions that accompany this festive season. Handel's Messiah is one of the most widely-known sacred oratorios, most commonly recognized by its Hallelujah chorus. However, Handel's Messiah, was not always regarded as a popular work for the Christmas season. Its first public performance on April 12th1742 in Dublin was highly successful and received well by the audience; however, the following year at the London première, the audience lashed insults upon the performers. The problem was the idea of performing a work based entirely upon the Holy Scripture in a secular and operatic setting - as well as in what was claimed to be a “profane venue.” It wasn’t until 1749 that its popularity grew and it was performed annually. Messiah is divided into three parts, the first dealing with biblical prophecies of the Saviour and their fulfillment through the incarnation of Christ. The second part represents the triumph of the Second Coming, and the third refers to Christ’s role as Saviour. Librettist Charles Jennen felt that rather than re- writing Christ's words, deeds and teachings through the libretto, he would place emphasis on God's redemption of mankind through Christ.

Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel, © Gary Beechey
Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel,
© Gary Beechey

This evening's performance kicked off a five-day marathon of Tafelmusik performances. Led by founding music director, Ivars Taurins, it featured the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra, as well as soloists Karina Gauvin (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Rufus Müller (tenor), and Brett Polegato (bass). As if Handel's Messiah is not a special enough occasion on its own, Tafelmusik incorporated the audience in the unique experience of being part of a live recording!

Part One kicked off with an immense sense of excitement and the blissful sounds of a pristinely tuned orchestra performing the Sinfonia. The power and accuracy portrayed through this piece provided justification for the Globe and Mail's claim that Tafelmusik is “the best period-performance ensemble anywhere in the world.” Tenor soloist Rufus Müller began the singing with a colorful and dynamic performance of the recitative “Comfort Ye.” His dynamic contrast was evident throughout the whole concert, which showcased his incredible ability to belt out fortissimos as well as instantaneous drops to pianissimo.

The musicians and vocalists were not the only individuals showcased this evening; Maestro Taurins made magic through his passion, emotions, and movements, setting him apart from any other conductor I have ever witnessed. His presence in the music made Messiah personal and unique in ways unimaginable without having been there to experience it. His conducting ensured precise attacks and releases in even the most intricate places and each instrumentalist was spot on. Word-painting played an enormous role in the effectiveness of the music. Handel incorporated it and Taurins executed it in a rather dramatic manner.

Handel asks a lot from his vocal soloists throughout the score, having them alternate almost every piece. The constant changing of vocalists was impressive to say the least. Each singer returned to the front of the stage with a new found energy and passion. It was as though the four soloists shared one brain in executing accuracy, mood, and timbre of the performance. Brett Polegato took the audience on a journey to the depths of the low register. His clarity blended perfectly with the orchestra and was not overbearing. He took part in a memorable encounter with the trumpet during “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It was a well-balanced duet and his voice combined perfectly with the trumpet throughout the piece. Robin Blaze astonished the audience with his impeccable clarity, range, and tone, hitting high notes with incredible power. He connected well with the audience and played a dynamic role with Rufus Müller in the duet “O Death, Where is Thy Sting?” Through her first entrance in “There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field,” Karina Gauvin shared her incredible enthusiasm through both her voice and facial expressions. She became one with the music and related well to the text.

Throughout the performance the Chamber Choir maintained a great balance and integrated well with the Baroque Orchestra. There were moments where the choir was drowned out and could have sang louder; however, overall, the combinations of soloists, orchestra, choir and conductor worked together like a well-oiled machine. Although there were many highlights, the “Hallelujah Chorus” was the defining moment of the night. When everyone stood up and this all too familiar piece was sung, it sent a surge of emotion and energy through the huge crowd at Koerner Hall and was a fitting climax to a truly memorable evening.