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Handel’s Messiah Arranged by Mozart: Establishing Presence Without Changing the Essence

Handel’s Messiah Arranged by Mozart: Establishing Presence Without Changing the Essence

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Orchestra London’s Classics and Beyond Series: Alain Trudel Conducting

Written by Brian Hay, norules-nolights.com, Dec. 2013

“Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” sung by a tenor? What! No way! Well, actually, it worked. And extraordinarily well at that.

Conductor Alain Trudel led the orchestra, The London Pro Musica Choir and an exemplary group of soloists through the arrangement one of Handel’s masterpieces that’s not heard often these days and made a really good case for doing it more often. The instrumentalists played with the precision and impassioned drive that’s characterized their performances over the last few years. The balance between forces was maintained splendidly emphasizing the transparent nature of the work. The London Pro Musica shone more brightly than ever as they seem to each time out. Under Director Vicki St. Pierre their restraint is phenomenal and their diction is a thing to behold. The impression that the soloists seemed fitted specifically enough to the music to have been chosen by the composers themselves intensified as the performance progressed.

Charlotte Burrage displayed immense range. Her voice is vibrant through areas normally associated with sopranos and delicious in the established comfort zone of mezzo-sopranos. She had the first piece, “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings To Zion”, where Mozart really established a dominant presence and her shadings interacted with those from the wind players coloured each other beautifully. When she sang “He Was Despised” the relationship between her and the clarinet achieved the sublime beauty established when a fabulous piece of wood is finished by simply deepening its natural shades. The Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio have a huge talent in her and the discipline she showed their faith will be justified.

Soprano Taylor Strande has a difference in vocal tones between the top and bottom of her range almost startling enough to sound like there’s two voices at work. Yet she makes the shifts look effortless. At the bottom it’s a rich deep caress, at the top, a blossoming flower. In between, it’s liltingly gentle, with power that remains hidden until she unleashes it. Near the end of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” there was a passage that went through the steps of her range in a such a way as to be one of the supremely memorable moments of the show.

Bass Sydney Outlaw has a voice that’s so lightly textured it seemed as if he was tenor singing in the low areas of his range. His silken tones project easily and he increases his volume with little apparent effort. His technical prowess is only half of what he offers though. He injects nuances that defines the concept of songs as stories with music attached. His performance of the reassigned aria, “But Who May Abide”, was so natural it was easy to forget the number was originally written for an alto. The sense of drama he brings to a concert stage says he’d be great in operatic roles. Hopefully he and Alain Trudel have chances to collaborate because they work beautifully together.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth sings with bright and warm tones that make his voice a natural for ‘Messiah’. His assured presence on stage and a sense of humour that’s never far from the surface engage the listener effortlessly and simply allows them to enjoy what transpires. His voice more than just fit the tone colours added by Mozart, it spanned the gap between the two composers. His singing of the famous opening recitative, “Comfort Ye My People” and the equally famous “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” injected the performance with the reassurance that this was still Handel. The assertiveness he brought to the reassigned aria, “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion”, handed the baton to Mozart and made the transition between female and male voices so logical it seemed it could always be done that way.

This arrangement may be one of the best examples of Mozart’s prodigious gift for clarity and impeccable musical taste in existence. Regardless of how many players were active the tone colours he added could be heard clearly. There was not a single moment where the essence changed from what Handel wrote yet his presence was often dominant. His reassignments of the arias “But Who May Abide”, and especially “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” made perfect sense viewed through the seamless logic that permeates his musical world. Ultimately, he stood back and let Handel talk only applying his unique touches where they could best serve the masterpiece already created. It stands as a fabulous collaboration between two brilliant musical dramatists and a testament to Mozart’s respect for the original material.

That’s no small feat. This arrangement needs to be heard more often, especially when it passes through the hands of tasteful interpreters as it did for this performance. 

This performance took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London Ontario on Wednesday December 4, 2013. This review was written from an audience perspective to convey impressions of what it was like to be there.