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A Fine Entertainment

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/11/2009 -  & Dec. 5 (Montréal), 15, 16 (Los Angeles)
George Frederic Haendel: Messiah

Rosemary Joshua (Soprano), David Daniels (Countertenor), Alan Bennett (Tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (Bass-Baritone)
Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle de Québec, Bernard Labadie (Music Director and Conductor)

Les Violons du Roy (© Luc Delisle)

Charles Jennens, who metathesized the Bible for George Frederic Haendel, riled proper London by describing Messiah as a “fine Entertainment.” But an “Entertainment” it most certainly is. The words are euphonious (if not always rational, like “Lift up your heads, O ye gates”). The words resemble Shakespeare for historical reason, since the Bard doubtless wrote much of the King James Bible himself. The music is hardly droll but it never has the sanctimony of, say, tonight’s Christmas Oratorio. And the three “Acts” are never a series of arias and choruses, but behave according to the rules of 18th Century opera.

This was well understood by that most enchanting of Baroque conductors, Bernard Labadie. What he has produced with his Violons du Roy (named after the ensembles who entertained various French Kings) and La Chapelle de Québec is discussed later. But Mr. Labadie’s own concept is, even within the endless codex of Messiah performances singular, without idiosyncrasies.

From the beginning, the pace was light, brisk, with a volition more towards opera than oratorio. There were no holes in the drama. Soloists and chorus played against each other without a break in the music. Of course the pace was quicker for Part I (the Birth) than the Passion. Part III, the Last Judgment, ended in triumphant mode. But in all three, we had the energy that made the drama inevitable.

Les Violons du Roy doesn’t use Ye Olde Authentic Instruments, but a sensitive reconstruction with modern materials. The bowing was light-textured with ancient-styled bows. Except for oboes, no extras were added, except in the grandest choruses.

In terms of forces, nothing could be authentic. The codex of Messiah performances ranges from Haendel’s minimal in London of less than 20 in the chorus, to a typical Victorian Messiah with about 4,000 singing and a few hundred in the orchestra. By using 24 orchestra and 31 chorus, Mr. Labadie might have been muted in Avery Fisher Hall. But Carnegie Hall acoustics made his forces resonate.

Mr. Labadie also understands the difference between improvisatory ornamentation, which can deprive from the drama, and the meticulous well-rehearsed grace notes and trills which can be so engaging. Both chorus and soloists made ornamented the notes as richly as possible. “Possible” meaning that the grace notes and trills were not improvisatory, but produced with much-rehearsed punctiliousness.

So if the performance was a good “Entertainment” than a religious service, we had Les Violons du Roy, which seem to have been heaven-sent. These Canadian musicians may be amongst the finest string players around, but that means little without production. Mr. Labadie is no shrinking conductor. He leads, coaxes, connects. His forces may be small, but he carries a big stick, and uses it for the most lovely sounds of the orchestra, as well as his own Chapelle de Québec.

The two groups almost galloped happily through the familiar. The Pastorale was no Shepherd’s dirge, but almost a jig of joy. “For we like sheep” was as light and fluffy as lambs gamboling on the lawn. “Lift up your heads” and “Glory to God” were sung with staccato tones (I almost expected the strings to play pizzicato.)

Many of the choruses were so sensitively uttered that we had the aural illusion of only half the singers working. But in the fullness of “Hallelujah” and the last fugue, the drums, brass and relatively voluminous chorus gave ever greater force.

Haendel used up to eight soloists, but the four here were excellent. The victory, though, must go to Andrew Foster-Williams. Not only for a commanding tone and mighty voice, but an accuracy–even in the whirlwind pace of “Why will the nations so furiously rage?”. That iconic countertenor David Daniels was a master of Baroque singing. Rosemary Joshua has already shown her lovely voice at the Met this year, and Alan Bennett was a splendid tenor.

There was little to disconcert. Yes, I would have preferred a “Bach” cornet to accompany “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, since no other brass accompanies the human voice was brilliantly. (In New Testament terms, this could be called “the Crown of Horns”). And while Mr. Labadie scrupulously retained the usually omitted last arias and recitatives, they only prolonged the great trumpet aria from segueing directly into the last chorus.

More essentially, we had here a Messiah played with fervor from beginning to end. In Haendel’s day, only the Cromwellians were sanctimonious. Handel and his friends were ardent believers in wine, women, commodious dinners, great words, rousing song and, oh, yes, God as well. Mr. Labadie emphasized the song and words, for a most joyous celebration of this joyous season.

Les Violons du Roy

Harry Rolnick



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