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Handel: Messiah / Taurins, Gauvin, Blaze, Muller, Polegato

Release Date: 10/30/2012 
Label:  Tafelmusik Media   Catalog #: 1016   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Karina GauvinRufus MüllerRobin BlazeBrett Polegato
Conductor:  Ivars Taurins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tafelmusik Chamber ChoirTafelmusik Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 21 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HANDEL Messiah Ivars Taurins, cond; Karina Gauvin (sop); Robin Blaze (ct); Rufus Müller (ten); Brett Polegato (bar); Tafelmusik Baroque O TAFELMUSIK 1016 (2 CDs: 141:33 Text and Translation) Live: Toronto 12/14-17/2011

This is the first recording of Messiah I’ve ever reviewed for Fanfare, and there is a good chance that it may be the last, because I tend to shy away Read more from this, the most widely popular piece of classical music ever composed. The reasons I stay away from it are not because it isn’t good music—on the contrary, it’s almost consistently great from start to finish—but because the religious connotations and each listener’s strongly emotional bias for one version over another (or, to be more precise, over many others) makes the reviewer’s task a dangerous one. I have seen at least one rave review for anywhere from eight to 10 different recordings of the work, and each one ends with the approximation of “this is the best ever and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” As one who has not only heard 18 other recordings (which will be covered below) but also countless TV performances during Christmas season, and also sang in two performances while in college, I guess I have as good an opinion as anyone else, but I’m scared to put forward my views too strongly for fear that partisans of alternate versions will write in to let me know how wonderful are the recordings I’ve missed.

But I have to say, from the outset, that I had a dual interest in this recording, one being my own positive reaction to virtually everything I’ve ever heard from Tafelmusik over the years and the other being Bertil van Boer’s enthusiastic review of their abridged Sing-Along Messiah on DVD ( Fanfare 36:1). And I will be honest: Right off the bat I was put in a negative mood because they use a countertenor instead of a mezzo-soprano, and I’m starting to harden my position against countertenors in virtually anything and everything Baroque nowadays. I mean, if the countertenor is really exceptional, once in a while it is OK, but to put one in Messiah just seems the height of political correctness to me.

So I will start by reviewing Robin Blaze. He’s terrific…a real rarity in that he has a luscious timbre that actually sounds like a female mezzo-soprano, crystal-clear diction and absolutely remarkable vocal coloring and range of expression. I’m not one of those who are very happy about modern recordings of Messiah shortening “Why do the nations rage” to one minute while expanding “He was despised and rejected” from its previous five or six minutes to 10 or 11, and this recording does both. I wish they had included the longer version of “Why do the nations” as an appendix (more on that later), but I’m glad they chose to perform the full version.

The other vocal soloists are also excellent. Brett Polegato’s baritone may sound a trifle light compared to some of the dark bass voices one hears on competing recordings, but he sings expressively and negotiates his runs and trills with dash and élan, and that’s good enough for me. He also has a slight flicker-vibrato, which may put historically informed listeners off, but if you feel this way you should read the reviews by Pier Francesco Tosi, who often reviewed singers with vibratos and liked them very much provided that they did not wobble. Rufus Müller, a name new to me, is an absolutely terrific tenor with a clear, pure voice, tremendous powers of coloration and great vocal control (including diminuendos and even a messa di voce in “Comfort ye”), and for those who haven’t yet heard Karina Gauvin this is one of her greatest performances yet. Again, many HIP listeners will bristle at the fact that she has a vibrato, but I for one found her singing so exciting and sensitive in turn that I could only bow before her greatness as an artist, and I think you should, too. Gauvin and Danielle de Niese are my new “heroines of the Baroque,” and I generally love and approve of everything they do nowadays on disc.

But reviewing the soloists in this remarkable performance separately does a tremendous disservice to the excellences of this recording. I consider this to be, for me, the overall best Messiah I’ve ever heard; and without going into extraordinary detail on each version, I’d like simply to list the recordings I’ve heard, followed by a few general comments.

Other recordings:

Thomas Beecham, Dora Labbette, Muriel Brunskill, Hubert Eisdell, Harold Williams, BBC Choir & Symphony Orchestra (1927) – Pearl GEMM 9456.

Thomas Beecham, Elsie Suddaby, Marjorie Thomas, Heddle Nash, Trevor Anthony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus (1947) – Biddulph WHL 059/61.

Thomas Beecham (Eugene Goossens arrangement), Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers, Giorgio Tozzi, Royal Philharmonic (1959) – RCA Gold Seal 61266.

Leonard Bernstein, Adele Addison, Russell Oberlin, David Lloyd, William Warfield, Westminster Choir, New York Philharmonic – Sony 60205.

Eugene Ormandy (abridged version), Eileen Farrell, Martha Lipton, Davis Cunningham, William Warfield, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Philadelphia Orchestra – CBS Masterworks 607.

Adrian Boult, Joan Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, Kenneth McKellar, David Ward, London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra – Decca 433003.

Colin Davis, Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield, John Shirley-Quirk, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus – Philips 438356.

Robert Shaw, Judith Raskin, Florence Kopleff, Richard Lewis, Thomas Paul, Robert Shaw Chorale & Orchestra – RCA Red Seal 62317.

Johannes Somary, Margaret Price, Yvonne Minton, Colin Tilney, Justino Diaz, Amor Artis Chamber Choir, English Chamber Orchestra – Vanguard 1969.

Karl Richter, Helen Donath, Anna Reynolds, Stuart Burrows, Donald McIntyre, John Alldis Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra – Deutsche Grammophon 453028 (the Mozart arrangement).

Neville Marriner, Elly Ameling, Anna Reynolds, Philip Langridge, Gwynne Howell, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chorus & Orchestra – Decca 444824.

Christopher Hogwood, Emma Kirkby, Judith Nelson, Carolyn Watkinson, Paul Elliott, David Thomas, Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Academy of Ancient Music – L’Oiseau-Lyre 430488.

John Eliot Gardiner, Catherine Robbin, Margaret Marshall, Charles Brett, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Richard Hale, Saul Quirke, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists – Philips 434297.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Elisabeth Gale, Marjana Lipov?ek, Werner Hollweg, Roderick Kennedy, Stockholm Chamber Choir, Concentus Musicus Wien – Warner Classics 4692824.

Andrew Parrott, Emma Kirkby, Emily van Evera, Margaret Cable, James Bowman, Joseph Cornwell, David Thomas, Taverner Players & Choir – Virgin Classics 62004.

Nicholas McGegan, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Janet Williams, Drew Minter, Patricia Spence, Jeffrey Thomas, William Parker, Berkeley Chamber Chorus, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra – Harmonia Mundi 907050/52. (All alternate arias etc.)

Trevor Pinnock, Arleen Augér, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance, Howard Crook, John Tomlinson, English Concert & Choir – Deutsche Grammophon 4775904.

Ton Koopman, Marianne Kweksilber, James Bowman, Paul Elliott, Gregory Reinhart, The Sixteen, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra – Warner Classics 4692826.

Of Beecham’s three recordings, the earliest is actually not bad at all, even by HIP standards, except for more “roundness” in its phrasing (and finishing of phrases) than we are used to today; each of his succeeding versions are bigger in concept, the last (1959) being the most famously bombastic ever, with Jon Vickers practically shouting “Thou shalt DASH them – to PIE-ces – like a potter’s vessel!” The Bernstein recording of 1961, though just as romantic in its phrasing and use of a large orchestra, must be credited as the first to use a real countertenor in place of a female mezzo, in this case the legendary Russell Oberlin—and he is tremendously expressive and highly musical. The abridged Ormandy recording, with the full Philadelphia Orchestra, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the king-sized voices of Eileen Farrell and William Warfield, may be said to be the American equivalent of the 1959 Beecham recording, except that the Eugene Goossens arrangement that Beecham used was even louder.

Depending on who you are and what country you come from (England or the U.S.), there are partisans for each of the next four recordings. The Boult has wonderful tempos and phrasing and one of the finest tenors ever to grace a Messiah recording (Kenneth McKellar—and if you’ve never heard him, you’re in for a treat), but then there was Sutherland, so that was the end of that (though she was one of the first sopranos to sing alternate ornaments). I always thought the Davis recording very expressive but, despite the use of a somewhat smaller orchestra and choir, not as impressive as Shaw’s groundbreaking RCA recording, and I personally didn’t like Shaw’s approach as much as the often-ignored Johannes Somary on Vanguard. The Richter DG recording was the only one I am aware of that used the Mozart orchestration, which makes it an interesting curio, though the highly expressive singing of tenor Stuart Burrows is not to be missed. Marriner’s mid-1970s recording and Gardiner’s version have this in common, that they tried to combine scholarship with good old-fashioned verve and dash. They succeeded, but to my ears both have been surpassed, and for me Gardiner used too many soloists.

Hogwood’s recording was virtually the first to try to “get back to the original” in almost every respect. Its one drawback is that Hogwood was always a stiff conductor with little or no bounce in the rhythms or relaxation in lyrical moments. Harnoncourt, always a pioneer, began employing some really quirky tempos and tempo shifts about the time he made his recording, which discounts it in my view despite some remarkable singing and playing. Both Pinnock and Parrott gave what I considered, at the time, to be really outstanding recordings. As a matter of fact, this Parrott version was, for years, my preferred version of this score because it had both energy and an inward-looking feeling that I found tremendously appealing. Koopman’s version was good, but rather too cool for my taste. McGegan conducted in what I would characterize as a somewhat “jumpy” sense of rhythm, but his soloists were terrific and he included every variant version of arias and choruses as extra tracks.

Which brings us back to this Tafelmusik version, and if I deem it a desert-island Messiah I am again speaking from my own personal taste, but I would hope that my mini-reviews of the 18 recordings above will give you an indication that (pun intended) I know the score. What characterizes this, for me, as a terrific Messiah is that it flows, has continuity (not always the case even with such formerly praised recordings as the Davis, Shaw, and Hogwood), both singing and playing are highly detailed, lyrical, yet energetic when it counts, that the solos blend into the choruses flawlessly at every point, and in general that this performance combines splendid scholarship with a really great, rousing, we-actually-sound-as-if-we’re-enjoying-ourselves atmosphere. Interestingly, the direction for this performance was turned over to Tafelmusik’s choral director, Ivars Taurins, and I thoroughly enjoyed his work here. Yes, I’ll go back and reiterate that I wish they had included the alternate shorter version of “He was despised” and the longer version of “Why do the nations,” but so what? This is pretty much what Handel wrote, although further research will tell you that he constantly adjusted his work for his available forces from the time he wrote it in 1742 until he died in 1759, so to a certain extent all of the recordings I’ve admired (the first Beecham, Davis, Shaw, Somary, Hogwood, Gardiner, Parrott, and this one) could well represent different ways that Handel himself performed it.

In closing, I must say that the sonics are phenomenal for a live performance, and I must give Music Director Jeanne Lamon great credit for her ingenuity in raising money for this recording project. On pages 30-31 of the booklet, you can see what she did, which was to solicit donations from different people for different arias and choruses of the work. What a terrific idea! This way, she didn’t have to hit up on two or three people, and/or a foundation, for the thousands of dollars a recording like this would cost, but rather break it down into a few hundred from individuals or couples of means. The packaging is attractive, and when you flip open the cardboard fold-over packaging, the first picture you see is neither Ivars Taurins nor Tafelmusik but the statue of Handel at Westminster Abbey, which is the way it should be. If you have your own emotionally charged favorite, I won’t tell you that you need to get this recording (heck, I know at least a few people who will never part with that Ormandy recording), but for me this is the performance of Messiah to own.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Karina Gauvin (Soprano), Rufus Müller (Tenor), Robin Blaze (Countertenor),
Brett Polegato (Baritone)
Conductor:  Ivars Taurins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Tafelmusik Chamber Choir,  Tafelmusik Orchestra
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741; London, England 
Date of Recording: 12/2011 
Venue:  : Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory, Tor 

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