Halls Brings TSO Messiah Brilliantly Into Focus

Arthur Kaptainis, Ludwig Van Toronto.

In the age of sexed-up and dumbed-down Messiahs, it is good to be reminded how utterly self-refreshing Handel’s masterpiece is when addressed by the right personnel under a conductor with something to say. Such were the conditions that prevailed Monday in Roy Thomson Hall, where Matthew Halls led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and a crack quartet of Canadian soloists in through a performance that could fairly be called electrifying. The repeats are strongly recommended, even if they might lie outside the comfort zone of some listeners.

I confess to having a problem with the opening bars, taken far faster than the Grave marking would justify and with a leap-frog quality that neutralized the majesty we normally equate with a French overture. There were many fast tempos to come, which conspired with some traditional cuts to end the evening after two hours and 19 minutes, intermission and late-seating breaks included.

Happily, the dazzling approach suited many of the choruses, including “Hallelujah”, and “His Yoke is Easy”, though possibly by the end of Part 1 I had made some adjustments to my internal clock. Not that the energy of this performance (or any performance) can be ascribed to velocity alone. An early-music man of Oxford upbringing, Halls placed punchy stress on strong beats (it would be hard to imagine a more forcefully iambic “Behold The Lamb of God”) and limned phrases with many articulatory and dynamic nuances.

Slowdowns at final cadences were sometimes extended, sometimes minimal. It was characteristic of his dramatic mindset that after stretching out the solemn “iniquity of us all” sequence that ends “All We Like Sheep”, Halls had the tenor recitative burst in attacca, leaving us without even a moment to contemplate one of Handel’s most profound inspirations.

That sounds like a criticism, and I suppose it is, but I cannot emphasize too strongly the thoroughness and integrity of this interpretation or the high quality of its execution. The choir, on stage, was a marvel of clarity, numbering 144 according to the program but sounding both smaller in terms of agility and larger in the fullness of tone. This is a good time to mention that Noel Edison is the TMC’s artistic director.

Read the full review here.