Classical CD Reviews

HANDEL: Messiah – Karina Gauvin, sop./ Robin Blaze, countertenor/ Rufus Müller, tenor/ Brett Polegato, bar./ Tafelmusik Baroque Orch. and Ch. Choir/ Ivars Taurins – Tafelmusik (2 CDs)

Ho hum Handel? Not now, not hardly…

Published on January 4, 2013

HANDEL: Messiah – Karina Gauvin, sop./ Robin Blaze, countertenor/ Rufus Müller, tenor/ Brett Polegato, bar./ Tafelmusik Baroque Orch. and Ch. Choir/ Ivars Taurins – Tafelmusik (2 CDs)

HANDEL: Messiah – Karina Gauvin, sop./ Robin Blaze, countertenor/ Rufus Müller, tenor/ Brett Polegato, bar./ Tafelmusik Baroque Orch. and Ch. Choir/ Ivars Taurins – Tafelmusik TMK1016 (2 CDs), 67:09, 74:24 (10/30/12) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

New Messiahs keep a comin’. The fact that there are so many outstanding versions—and versions of versions—out there, sung by the most competent singers in the world and conducted by the finest conductors, does nothing to deter the onslaught of new arrivals. Many of these are local events only, and only of use to those either at the performance or living in the area. Others have a lot more to offer, and by now we have heard just about every version ever conceived by the composer—who worked on it for nine years tweaking according to venue need—in just about every conceivable philosophical construct. Ornaments, or no ornaments? Vibrato or no vibrato? Large or small chorus? Large or small orchestra?

Of course the trend lately has been towards small for everything, but there is really no precedent for it. In fact, early on there were gargantuan performances of over 500 performers—just imagine that today—and it was this sort of presentation that gave people like Thomas Beecham the idea of expanding the piece for modern orchestra—and it works! If you want something similar today the best thing to do is get Andrew Davis’s EMI recording from Toronto. If you like smaller the choices are legion, as are the medium-sized recordings. To this point I have preferred Davis (Philips), Beecham (RCA), Shaw (RCA), and the recent Christophers (Coro), the last being my desert island choice.

This latest is also from Toronto, the always-reliable Tafelmusik, this time conducted not by Jeanne Lamon but by the choral meister Ivars Taurins. Both orchestra and chorus are around 23-25 in strength, and of course we get the almost-mandatory countertenor. In fact, the modern-day countertenor is somewhat of an invention; while they were present in church singing taking the alto voice, there is little evidence that they were ever used in the music of Handel, though possibly in some of the oratorios. The rage then was the castrato, and there seem to be few volunteering for that role today even though it is far more historically accurate.

But as a tribute to how far the period movement has come, we are given a performance that is just littered with infused dynamics and all sorts of tempo changes that are nowhere in Handel’s score; I find it extremely refreshing, and am very happy that these folks have the guts to impose their own interpretative ideas on us—there are too many performers that consider bland Handel great Handel, and it just isn’t so. Each of the soloists here are excellent, though Robin Blaze’s countertenor can be a little strident on high held notes. Otherwise he has very good technique and good power for the voice. The chorus is quite non-European in its pronunciation, and quite adept at the many dynamic changes. The orchestra is as it always was, one of the best period bands around. I enjoyed this recording immensely, and will now add it to my preferred list of Messiahs, about 10 or so…we all need that many, don’t we? [There is also a DVD of a Tafelmusik Messiah performance—perhaps the same one—called The Sing-Along Messiah…Ed.]

—Steven Ritter




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