Handel: Messiah (CD Review - ClassicsToday.com, 2009)

Performances of Messiah are never difficult to find, especially during the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons, and the CD catalog is perennially rich in recordings of Handel's most popular work, several of them quite fine--so why should we care about yet another new recorded rendition of this beloved oratorio? The answer is, unlike the choirs and conductors who dominate that list of recordings and live performances, Polyphony and its director Stephen Layton are bona fide, well-seasoned Messiah experts, whose more than 10 years of annual London Messiah concerts have conferred a special understanding of and relationship with this at once varied and variable masterpiece. Reviews for the concerts are consistently strong, and reflect, as with Handel's own performances, Layton's commitment to keeping the work fresh and dynamic. To that end, each year's performance is deliberately different from the last, an affirmation of Layton's quest to "get closer to [the work's] narrative journey" and a recognition of a fundamental truth about Messiah--that there never has been an "official" version of the score; that alteration, substitution, deletion, and addition always have been and continue to be inherent features of the work (which undoubtedly is an important reason for its undiminished popularity), whose particular interpretation at a given moment "comes into being according to its context."

The context for this performance was the Christmas 2008 production from Polyphony's usual Messiah venue, St. John's Smith Square in London; the performing edition is based on Handel's version from 1750 (Messiah as most listeners know it); performing forces are moderately sized (chorus of 31, orchestra of 24)--and I must say ideally so for this interpretation and venue; and happily, as you listen the issue of period vs. modern performance style doesn't come up--the playing by the Britten Sinfonia is simply crisp and taut and articulate, with a keen rhythmic sense and overall vibrant timbre.

Layton knows not only about the importance of tempo--a puzzlingly neglected topic in critical discussions of the work--but also, and again this is almost unheard-of for conductors of Messiah, he actually takes care to consider mood, urging his singers and players to draw clear distinctions between the lyrical optimism of Part 1 and the dark despair and grief of the early sections of Part 2, culminating in the glorious triumph of the Hallelujah chorus and the reassuring finality of the Amen. Layton understands the dramatic character of Handel's realization of the Christian story, but it's really the musical realizations here that are so compelling--and refreshingly unidiosyncratic--that you easily can hold this Messiah as your standard reference. Which brings us to the soloists.

Messiah performances often live or die by virtue of the solo singers, who play such significant roles in the work; their ability to impress technically as well as to vocally ingratiate themselves to listeners (these arias are so familiar and well-loved!) is key to our enjoyment and to our desire for a repeat performance. Not to worry. This is the most satisfying quartet of Messiah soloists to appear in a very long time. These young singers have the right stuff for Handel, whose music begs for lighter, brighter, warmer, more lyrical voices (especially the upper three) than we often get. But Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Allan Clayton strike just the right balance between technical virtuosity and ardent expression of the texts, and bass Andrew Foster-Williams delivers his arias with the authority and power that we expect from "The people that walked in darkness" and "The trumpet shall sound". (Davies appears on another of our recommended Messiahs, from this same venue in 2006--the New College Oxford recording on Naxos--type Q10494 in Search Reviews.) Ornaments are always artful and respectful of the melodic line--and Layton never stresses his soloists with precariously fast (or slow) tempos. His only indulgence is in the Hallelujah chorus where he momentarily slows down on the words "King of kings", which has the effect of making you think your CD player's servo mechanism has caught on something for a couple of seconds before correcting itself and moving on.

Needless to say, the chorus is excellent--and in a work where we particularly notice the sopranos and tenors, Polyphony's are exemplary. The sound is vibrant and detailed, benefiting from the church's complementary acoustic and the orchestra's lean textures and mean ensemble precision. While this Messiah will not raise any alerts for interpretive audacity (which some performers seem to think a plus!) it will instead encourage repeated listening by virtue of its trueness to Handel's music and its uncompromisingly fine performances. By definition, if you love Messiah, one recording (or performance) is never enough--and this version will be a welcome addition--or first acquisition--for any collection.


David Vernie

See Recording Details