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Tafelmusik's Messiah still looking for 'wow factor'


Cylla von Tiedemann


  • Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
  • Karina Gauvin, Robin Blaze, Rufus Muller, Brett Polegato, soloists
  • At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

There must be a zillion recordings of Messiah in the world – and soon there will be a zillion and one. Currently, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir are recording George Frideric Handel's popular masterpiece for release next year.

Wednesday night's Messiah was the first of four performances that Tafelmusik is giving this week, both as public concerts and recording sessions. And this double-duty approach seems to be having a palpable effect on the results.

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For starters, the project necessitated a change of venue. Tafelmusik's usual home, Trinity-St. Paul's United Church, isn't soundproofed against street noise and would make a very poor recording studio. In contrast, a bomb could go off outside Koerner Hall and nobody inside would hear a thing.

Moreover, the elaborate network of microphones hanging over the stage did much to account for the concert's musical qualities. Mindful that they were being recorded for posterity, orchestra, chorus and soloists were all on their best behaviour, giving refined and polished performances.

Yet, ironically, because everyone was being so careful, excitement, passion and spontaneity were often in short supply. No matter how furiously conductor Ivars Taurins waved his arms, his performers were only occasionally willing to give this Messiah their all.

The soloists that Tafelmusik chose for the occasion, were, to say the least, an impressive group. All four brought strengths to the performance, including clear diction, solid technique and an admirable sense of period style.

First up was the Anglo-German tenor Rufus Muller. In Comfort Ye, My People and then Ev'ry Valley he displayed an endearing ease of vocal production and a penchant for interesting dynamic effects.

Canadian baritone Brett Polegato followed, bringing his rich, dark voice to bear on Thus Saith the Lord. It was apparent that roulades of running 16th-notes – a trademark of Handel's style – don't come readily to Polegato, yet he overcame all obstacles through sheer determination.

However, English countertenor Robin Blaze took to Handel's roulades very much in stride, with his supple and agile voice. In But Who May Abide and other solos he sang with an innocent, cherub-like quality that was quite charming.

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The belle of the ball was Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin. Hers is a complex voice – at times delicate and fragile, and at others as strong as steel. From her first entry, singing the aria Rejoice Greatly her performances were vivid and beautiful.

And it's to Gauvin that credit must be given for finally injecting some intensity into this Messiah. The aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, which opens Part III, was dripping with ardent faith and heartfelt emotion. It was as though she were channelling the spirit of the late Lois Marshall.

Gauvin's efforts proved contagious, for from this point to the end, a new kind of energy inhabited the oratorio. Polegato's The Trumpet Shall Sound was virile and dynamic. (If only the accompanying trumpeter had been as powerful.) And Tafelmusik's choristers – who, in Parts I and II, had been content with neat and tidy renditions of His Yoke Is Easy, All We Like Sheep and even Hallelujah! – now sang Worthy Is the Lamb like they meant it.

Tafelmusik will be in Koerner Hall through Saturday night – and so will the microphones. This gives orchestra, choir and soloists four chances to record Messiah. If, over the course of these concerts, they can achieve more consistently the "wow factor" that was only touched on in Wednesday's performance, they'll have an excellent recording on their hands.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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