In the days of record stores, harried clerks were routinely asked the same question every year at this time: what’s the best recording of Handel’s Messiah? Never mind that the oratorio was intended for performance around Easter, or even that it is carries a distinctly religious message, it has become an all but inescapable part of American Christmas festivities.
Although dozens of fine recordings of Handel's 1741 oratorio are currently available (ArkivMusic lists 119), the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir makes a persuasive case for their latest interpretation, released on their in-house label. Recorded last December at Koerner Hall in Toronto, it features a moderately sized chorus and orchestra (25 members each), delivering a full sonority in the big choral numbers and a reflective intimacy in the solo arias.
Needless to say, if your idea of Messiah involves pomp and grandiosity, you may look elsewhere. The orchestra playing here is crisp, taut and articulate. The quartet of soloists – soprano Karina Gauvin, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Rufus Müller and baritone Brett Polegato – is well seasoned. Standouts include Polegato’s beautifully shaped aria, “That people walked into darkness,” and Gauvin’s bright “Rejoice greatly.”
For those who can't resist the urge to participate, Tafelmusik has also released a DVD of its annual sing-along version of Messiah, in which conductor Ivars Taurins dons a wig and plays the part of the irascible George Frederic, hamming it up for the 3,000 participants. It’s not for everyone, but it goes to show the staying power and versatility of this Christmas-season favorite.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Available at Arkvimusic.com