Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A Glorious "Messiah"

Early Music Vancouver’s presentation of Handel’s Messiah was probably the most overwhelmingly spiritual, emotional, and musical experience in all my years of encountering this familiar work. Last Saturday, details I had never heard leapt out from the score under the imaginative and inspiring direction of conductor Ivars Taurins. The Pacific Baroque Orchestra joined forces with the Vancouver Cantata Singers (sounding great under their director Paula Kremer) and four outstanding soloists who delivered a truly indelible and moving musical experience.

The opening Sinfony was played with great energy and a wonderful sense of occasion. When the A section was repeated, rather than merely playing it softer, as is the usual custom, Taurins varied the dynamics and colours a great deal more in the repeat.

I have rarely heard a performance where there was such a merging of the words being sung and the orchestral colours. In “Comfort ye”, tenor Thomas Hobbs mellifluous voice was resting on a sort of cushion of string sound. I liked the conductor’s tempo choice in the aria, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”, giving the music a wonderful sense of movement. In the brief prestissimo introduction and the accompaniment to “For he is like a refiner’s fire”, conductor and string players conjured up with those rapid 16th-notes an effect like flickering flame. In the recitativo accompagnato and aria that follows, the string colours and the way the musicians played those two-note slurs matched perfectly bass Peter Harvey deeply-felt singing of “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” and “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. 

In the aria, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”, the tempo set by Taurins and the way the strings were coloured created a real sense of repose. As well, the brief postlude was truly beautifully played, and echoed the emotions of the words just being sung. In the aria, “He was despised”, the strings played the descending figures with a sense of real sorrow and vulnerability, matching perfectly the strikingly poignant singing of alto Krisztina Szab√≥. For me, the feeling of the aria was even more deeply felt in the repeat of the A section. There was an incredibly hushed quality in the music at the words, “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. With the words “He gave his back to the smiters”, the attack of the dotted-rhythmic figures made a sound like hitting, evoking the image of Christ’s scourging. Then in the introduction to the bass aria, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, Taurins whipped up a real sense of urgency in the orchestral playing. 

The solo voices were uniformly excellent. Joanne Lunn’s singing of the recitatives conveyed a sense of wonder that I found incredibly moving: 

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them… / And the angel said unto them: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy… / And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host.

Her singing of the aria, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” was exhilarating in its lightness as well as its sense of musical pulse. Lunn’s singing of the aria’s many melisma passages was breathtaking. In the aria, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace”, Lunn handsomely handled the subtle shift from G minor to B-flat major in the opening phrases. Kirsztina Szab√≥’s singing of “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd” truly brought across the overwhelming compassion of the words. Tenor Thomas Hobbs has an acute sense of the timing of the music. In the brief recitative, “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision”, he delivered the lines with an incredible sense of urgency. Peter Harvey sang the aria, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” with wonderful energy and a resounding virtuosity. In “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”, he sang this great bass aria with real drama, making use of the brief eighth-note rests (for instance, at four measures after B) to great effect. Yet, in the recitative, “Behold I tell you a mystery” was sung with a confiding tone. 

The players of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra played with their usual high standard. In “The trumpets shall sound”, solo trumpet Alexis Basque shone with his beautiful shaping of phrases as well as its musicality. Having the two trumpets playing from the side of the choral loft during “Glory to God” was an inspired idea - Handel’s instructions are for the trumpeters to play “from a distance and rather softly.”

Last month’s Remembrance Day concert confirmed the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ status as one of the city’s finest choral groups. In that concert as well as for this past weekend’s Messiah performance, the group sang with their usual musicality, but also with intelligence and imagination. The singers responded to the lively tempo in “And the glory the glory of the Lord” and sang with amazing lightness and agility. In “And He shall purify” and in “All we like sheep”, the melismata were sung with a silken smoothness. In “And He shall purify”, there was a purity of sound and a lightness of texture.  There was a genuine feeling of exhilaration in “For unto us a Child is born”. The chorus “Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” was delivered with great energy and power. In “And with His stripes we are healed” the choir sang the music with varied, almost instrument-like, articulation, and a wonderful flexibility. There was an appropriately mocking quality and a suitable disjointedness in the vocal line, in their singing of “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him”. This disjointed quality of the vocal line also worked to wonderfully dramatic effect in “Let us break their bonds asunder”.  

The justly famous “Hallelujah” chorus was sung with a real sense of occasion, and certainly with the requisite majesty and grandeur. The varied dynamics in the phrase, “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords” added to the drama of the music. The choir sang the opening of “Since by man came death” (Grave) with beautiful blending, an organic wholeness, and gorgeous tone quality. I loved the slight decrescendo at the ending (Adagio) of “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”. The singers acquitted themselves admirably in the very exposed opening of “Blessings and honour, glory and pow’r be unto Him”. The great “Amen” was sung with great depth of feeling, giving this already memorable evening a real sense of communion.

I believe it is no exaggeration to say that we live in a post-Christian age. That said, the fact that people flock year after year to performances of Handel’s Messiah tells me that we, all of us, no matter what we profess to believe (or not), are in search of something beyond our everyday existence, something transcendent. For me, this performance of Handel’s masterwork had truly brought these divinely inspired work alive. 

Wishing everyone a joyous Christmas and a new year that will bring a return to peace for so many parts of the world.

                                                                                                            Patrick May