Labadie: This might seem surprising since I've been a Baroque man for as long as I can remember, but Messiah was not part of my musical upbringing. The Christmas Oratorio was what I grew up with. I remember when I was young, and I asked for the recording and the score of Handel's work, one of my aunts said, "Oh, no: it's way too serious for a young man."
I came to the Messiah quite late. When I started working on it in 1987, I was a bit puzzled in the beginning because I had been used to hearing it in performances that were done with massive orchestras and massive choruses at rather slow tempos. I was under the impression, like so many people, that the Messiah was this grand thing.
It's actually built like an opera, with many characters sung by the different singers and by the chorus. One has to bear in mind that it is among the first oratorios that Handel wrote when he had to abandon opera, and it shows the opera composer at work.
Of course now, for me, it is ingrained in my mind and soul as a Christmas piece, but it's much more than that. Christmas is only one part of the story; it has a much wider scope: not only in terms of storytelling, but also in terms of emotions, or of "affects," as we 18th-century people put it.
We see Handel at work, using a text that initially should not be considered dramatic at all. It is really excerpts from the Scriptures, expertly assembled by Charles Jennens. As opposed to Bach, Handel always starts in a subdued way. He builds it up the way he builds the tension in an opera.
Bach doesn't do that. Even as an organist, the first thing Bach wanted to do when he was trying out a new organ was to pull out all of the stops and see if its "lungs" were good. He did that as a composer as well. He always used all of the instruments available in the very opening of a piece, and he definitely did that in a brilliant manner in the Christmas Oratorio.
After five minutes of each piece, you're already confronted with two completely different worlds from two composers who were exact contemporaries, who were born only a few hundred kilometers apart, and who never met. This is, for me, quite fascinating. You realize that these two people were not on the same boat, so to speak. But they were looking for the same proverbial port, and somehow they arrived at the same place from two completely different directions. The impression of greatness and of fulfillment in that journey is amazing in both pieces.
Bernard Labadie conducts Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Qu_bec in performances of Handel's Messiah (December 11) and Bach's Christmas Oratorio (December 12).
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