Handel: Messiah (CD Review - Audiophile Audition, 2009)

This is a very personal, very intimate reading of Messiah. I was almost put off completely when the Overture started; it is so soft and almost intruding that I could not imagine what was going to follow; but thankfully I stuck with it, for this is one of the more affecting readings to come my way since the Sixteen reading with Parrott on Coro.

I do wish the decision had not been made to go with a countertenor instead of an alto. This is one species that I would love to see extinct, but as the advocates get more vocal and the performers more versatile they are probably going to be around for a while. Iestyn Davies doesn’t have a bad voice—he sings in tune and everything with no little degree of musicality—but the lack of power is bothersome, as it is with all of this breed. But I do have to applaud many of his interpretative decisions as they feel right and thought-through. Tenor Allan Clayton presents many of his arias with a sense of bedside whispering—just listen to his “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow” for as meltingly beautiful a reading as you will hear, almost like he is sitting in front of you and trying to persuade.

Andrew Foster-Williams has a bass that is somewhat devoid of subwoofer-like pathos, instead being flexible and versatile, allowing him greater discretion in coloring and articulation. His “Trumpet shall sound” is a model of technique and temperament tied together. But the real star among the soloists is soprano Julia Doyle, whose light coloratura soprano voice leads the pack in so many of these arias, not overwhelming at all, and not too opera-house either, instead regulating her instrument to the needs of each Handelian moment, along with an articulation that simply thrills.

Stephen Layton and his marvelous Polyphony must have been listening to Rene Jacobs’s Messiah on Harmonia mundi, because he takes all sorts of liberties with ornamentation, tempos, and dynamics, making for an unexpectedly unusual and completely persuasive performance of great depth and substance. It is on the quick side but doesn’t seem rushed. The dynamic ranges are thrilling, Polyphony suddenly cranking up the volume without notice that pulls you out of the seat, yet expressing an admirable ability to conjure up the most delicate of sounds and quietude. Hyperion’s sound is remarkably agile and wide.

This is a Messiah not shouted from the mountaintops but spoken softly in the confines of a small room among friends, yet it can explode when needed. It doesn’t best the Parrott, but it is definitely a corker. By the way, it uses primarily the 1750 version with some 1752 variants.

Steven Ritter 

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