Sometimes it takes some time away from home to be able to see things clearly again. That’s rather how I felt about last night’s Messiah performed by Tafelmusik at Koerner Hall. In the last few years I’ve seen choreographed and fully staged versions, the Andrew Davis version with sleigh bells and whoopee cushions and Soundstreams eclectic Electric Messiah, all of which helped bring a conventional small scale performance with period instruments into focus.
Eight sopranos, two men and three women altos, five tenors and five basses with sixteen strings, harpsichord and chamber organ with sparing use of the winds produced great clarity of sound and a real sense of the chorus as representing characters in the drama rather than being a sound wall. This was rather reinforced for me by being able to pick out individual voices of the folks I know! The quartet of soloists all contributed to this. Everybody sang with restraint and attention to the text. Ornamentation, and there was plenty, was elegant rather than histrionic. All of this was probably helped by the relatively dry, clear Koerner Hall acoustic.
The soprano soloist, on Tafelmusik debut, Amanda Forsythe, was new to me. She has a very agile voice and a genuine trill. Last night she used her fast vibrato sparingly, ornamented where appropriate and sang like she believed in the text in front of here. Nowhere was this more apparent and affecting than in I know that my Redeemer liveth. Krisztina Szabó, also, staggeringly, a debutante, took the alto part. I’ve heard altos pluck the heartstrings harder in, say, He was despised, but that would have been out of character with this performance I think. Again rather than wallowing in the emotion we got clear and forceful use of the text to fully convey its impact. Colin Balzer’s tenor was also of a piece with the whole; light, bright, text sensitive, almost that British early music/Britten sound. Tyler Duncan, the bass, was the biggest voice on show I think but that didn’t stop him ornamenting more than most. It’s quite a feat to work so hard early in the piece and still have gas in the tank for The trumpet shall sound. Admittedly he was starting to sound a bit tired at the end of that but that dialogue with the trumpet, especially a valveless one, is challenging. The trumpet part, played, I think by Josh Cohen was brilliant. It managed to have all the good aspects of the valveless sound while avoiding most of the dodgy ones.
There were comparatively few cuts and so, even with fairly brisk tempi from the balletic Ivar Taurins it was a pretty long evening but very worthwhile. If you want a Messiah to wallow in as part of a pseudo-Victorian Christmas I’d avoid this one like the plague but if you want something that will actually make you think about the piece, its often troubling texts and their relationship to the music this is a winner. There’s one more performance tonight at 7.30pm.