Handel: Messiah (CD Recording - Opera News NYC, 2010)

Any Handel oratorio needs to be an elastic entity in our day, just as it was in Handel’s. Considering the number of performances of Messiah given all over the world, it is doubly so for this work. Stephen Layton has chosen a male alto, Iestyn Davies — pristine of diction — and a soprano, Julia Doyle, whose sound has a purity and simplicity that remind us how Handel sometimes used a choirboy for this task. We are offered the duet version of “He shall feed his flock” and the alto version of “Thou art gone up on high.” The soprano takes “If God be with us.” In the long sequence of Part Two from “Thy rebuke” through “Behold, and see” and “He was cut off” to “But thou didst not leave,” the tenor takes the first three, the soprano the last. Given how many ideas have been tried out in Messiahs over the past three decades, Layton’s is notable for an undogmatic approach. Not every rhythm that could be double-dotted is double-dotted. Not every notated ornament or appoggiatura is taken. Handel’s tempo relationships are not strictly maintained. And Layton’s new ideas are persuasive. There is some highly detailed string articulation in “O Thou that tellest.” There is a questioning quality to “And the glory of the Lord.” Indeed, nothing seems to have been taken for granted in the whole performance. “How beautiful are the feet,” at a lilting tempo, is the height of the charm. It’s almost a Christmas carol. There is a delicious icy tone to the strings in “Thou shalt break them.” But the most striking ideas come at the beginning and the end. There is, unusually, a certain amount of anxiety to the allegro body of the overture. (Interesting, because the first word of the oratorio is, of course, “Comfort.”) The
final “Amen” of the work is perhaps the calmest on records. For some time it is slow, flexible and quiet, like Gregorian chant. Just about everything Layton does is effective. The choral singers are excellent, capable of holding a long note without losing color or pitch. There are some of the fleetest and lightest basses you could ever hope to hear, and, although personnel are not named, there seem to be some male altos. Soprano Doyle is happiest on high, interpolating high B-flats in two numbers. (It’s interesting that Handel expected this note from his choral sopranos but not from his soloist.) Davies, like so many male altos, doesn’t quite get to the emotional heart of “He was despised” the way many women do. It’s an angelic, stunned reaction to the scene, rather than an act of reportage. Elsewhere, he uses an easy rubato that never calls attention to itself. He’s a bit let down in “Thou art gone up on high,” the one number where Layton hasn’t quite settled on the intended affect. Tenor Allan Clayton offers a joyous “Ev’ry valley” and, in tandem with Layton, a natural flexibility in the progression of thoughts. In this company, bass Andrew Foster-Williams can seem a little cautious and correct. He saves his best work for last, a solid “The trumpet shall sound.” At any rate, the performance of the oratorio as a whole is as satisfying as any. Decisions that might have been questioned — modern instruments, occasional solo strings (as in “If God be for us”) instead of tutti — are swept aside by the music. The booklet essay by Anthony Hicks is another selling point. Layton probably has some provocative ideas about which numbers should tumble onward into the next and which need time and silence around them, but the editing is patchy enough that we can’t tell what was intended. Hyperion, an ever-valuable label on which a dozen of my favorite recordings appear, has had the classical world’s ugliest art direction for so many years that it actually is starting to get endearing

William R Braun 

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