That Handel’s Messiah is as much a Christmas tradition in North America and parts of Europe as the Hollywood classic film It’s a wonderful life is a given. For its part, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal launched its Christmas season with a performance of the work on Tuesday, in a less-than-full Maison symphonique. This year, OSM chorus master Andrew Megill not only prepared the choir but also conducted a reduced orchestra.

Philippe Sly © Adam Scotti | CAMI
Philippe Sly
© Adam Scotti | CAMI

His approach was more clinically efficient than emotionally inspired or engaged. Yet there were many virtues to his interpretation most notably with reference to the choir. Megill emphasised verbal clarity and rhythmic energy and the choir responded with a most accomplished and strongly accentuated reading. Vocally impressive, they revealed an admirable core homogeneity of sound with uniform and moulded vowels and crisp, lively consonants. They were asked to lighten their tone and vocal weight in order to better negotiate the work’s tricky coloratura passages and were most attentive to musical and linguistic accents. They rose as one to the mighty “Hallelujah” chorus but were equally impressive in “Since by man came death”. 

With the exception of the first violins, (too often hampered by inconsistent attacks and faulty articulation) the orchestra too responded well to Megill’s vision of the work. In the spirit of modern performing practice, Megill adopted a minimalist approach to vibrato and bowing but overall orchestral textures were never insufficient or thin (especially not with three double-basses!) and contrasted well with the well-balanced and supportive continuo. If at times one would have wished Megill to linger a moment over a lyrical phrase or suspend a breath to ensure a soloist’s legato, his reading certainly had a spring in its step.

It is often forgotten that Handel wrote Messiah shortly after abandoning the composition of Italian opera. For more than 25 years, Italian opera had established Handel as the leading dramatic composer of age, but the genre had become prohibitively expensive and so he turned to the dramatic oratorio, a form less costly and one that could tap into the English love of choral music and their relish for religious, biblical subjects.

Megill was most fortunate in having a quartet of soloists who could underline and emphasise the dramatic drive of the Messiah’s narrative. If soprano Leslie Ann Bradley was slightly more non-descript in terms of vocal expressivity, her creamy soprano gave much vocal pleasure in her solos, especially “I know that my Redeemer liveth” but also in a jaunty “Rejoice greatly”. The latter, though not ideal of line or coloratura, was still vocally alluring. Her voice is evenly produced and rings out true and effortlessly especially above the stave. Alto Anita Krause brought complementary gifts to bear as was clear during their affecting duet, “He shall feed his flock”. Krause’s keen sense of verbal nuance and her expressive delivery and bearing added to the emotional impact of “He was despised”. However, her singing occasionally lacked a centred focus and vocal projection and had a tendency to turn a little pallid.

Both tenor, Pascal Charbonneau and baritone, Philippe Sly offered performances that contained an operatic dimension in terms of dramatic characterisation. Charbonneau opened with a poised, floated “Comfort ye” and followed with a flamboyantly virtuoso and  liberally ornemented, “Ev’ry valley”. Yet his most impressive contribution was a powerful and impassioned “Thou shall break them”. Charbonneau’s voice has matured and deepened in colour and inflection and his lyric diction and musicianship were of the highest order.

It is difficult to know where to start and end with the procociously gifted Sly. His understanding of narrative pulse and vocal contrasts as well as musical expressivity are hard to fathom. His accompagnato recits were a joy, none more so than his opening “Thus saith the Lord”. The precision and clarity of his diction are only matched by the range of vocal colours he has at his disposal and the sheer beauty of the voice. “The trumpet shall sound” was an exercise in verbal and tonal variety and vocal risk-taking. Technically, he continues to refine and fine-tune which is somewhat scary in its implications. Comparisons have been made with another Canadian, Gerald Finley, and they are not exaggerated. There are some striking similarities between the two, including the beauty of the voice and their common dramatic charisma. They do indeed seem cut from the same cloth… And Sly is not alone; the world has yet to discover two other emerging Canadian baritones – Gordon Bintner and Josh Whelen – but their day too will doubtless come…..