Handel: Messiah (CD Review - Music Web International, 2009)


Choosing a version of Messiah used to be comparatively easy. If you wanted a big-scale performance in the Victorian tradition, you went for one of Sir Malcolm Sargent’s recordings with the Huddersfield Choral Society or even for Sir Thomas Beecham’s with everything on board except – perhaps even including – the kitchen sink. Sargent is still to be had, in stereo on a 6-CD budget Classics for Pleasure set with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, etc (CFP 5757582) or a 2-CD set from the same source (CFP5757762) or in the older 1946 version inexpensively from Dutton (2CDEA5010) or even more cheaply from Documents (220856). The Beecham is on RCA  09026 61266 2  09026 61266 2 (3 CDs, no less). I love Beecham’s ballet arrangements of Handel’s music, Love in Bath and The Great Elopement, but his Messiah is just too much, I’m afraid.

If you wanted an ‘authentic’ performance, there, too, you could hardly go wrong. This time last year I was singing the praises of the new recording by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers on the Coro label (COR16062 – see Dec. 2008 Download Roundup) and this remains my version of choice, though I have recently also recommended the Dunedin Consort/John Butt recording of the 1742 Dublin version on Linn (CKD285 – see review by Michael Greenhalgh and my Nov., 2009 Roundup). Both these versions fall into the authentic category and both are available for about the price of a single CD, which makes them competitive in price with Hyperion’s earlier version from The Sixteen (Dyad CDD22019), Their new Polyphony/Stephen Layton set is priced at two CDs for the price of one.

With such riches of choice among ‘authentic’ versions, whatever that means – Handel never fixed a definitive Messiah – there is a real need for a good middle-of-the-road recording: one which employs modern instruments but shows awareness of period practice. Three elderly recordings from the 1960s, still available, used to be recommended in this category and they all still have something to commend them: Charles Mackerras (deleted on CD, but available on 5694492 from passionato.com as a download), Colin Davis (Philips Duo 438 356 2 or 50 Great Recordings 464 703-2 – see review) and Johannes Somary (Vanguard ATMCD1969). For some Colin Davis’s recent remake on the LSO Live label (LSO0607) meets that same need for the early 21st century, but this version was by no means universally welcomed, so the field remains open.

Many will find that this new Hyperion recording fills that gap admirably and I’m inclined to place myself among them. My initial run-through was as enjoyable as any version of Messiah that I’ve ever heard, live or recorded. I didn’t unduly miss the sound of original instruments, nor did I ever find anything remotely stodgy on the one hand or over-fast on the other. Indeed, the brisk and stylish tempi, some modest ornamentation and the attribution of all the alto arias to a counter-tenor offer much more than a nod in the direction of authenticity. The Christophers and the Christopher Hogwood recording which Stephen Layton mentions with approval in his notes employ a contralto. Butt employs a mezzo and two contraltos and Trevor Pinnock both a mezzo and a counter-tenor.

The version of the score chosen for this recording, too, is a compromise: more or less the conventional text, with none of the first thoughts which other conductors employ. If you’re still using the old Chrysander edition or the Novello score, edited by Ebenezer Prout, you won’t find many variants to perplex you, though you may be surprised to hear But thou didst not leave his soul in Hell (Part II, 9) sung (and well sung) by the soprano, not the tenor, though, oddly, the preceding recitative He was cut off is awarded to the tenor.

Stephen Layton and Polyphony have performed Messiah for many years at St John’s, Smith Square in December, with a variety of orchestras and soloists. Despite admitting to having heard too many Messiahs and having serious reservations about the 2005 soloists, Melanie Eskenazi praised Layton for his untiring enthusiasm for the work – see review. The following year, she was either less sated with the music or the performers were in better shape; her description of that event as ‘finely phrased and beautifully coloured ... another triumph for Polyphony’ – see review – will do very nicely for the new CDs, albeit that the orchestra and most of the soloists are different.

Polyphony’s Messiah performances have sometimes employed the Academy of Ancient Music, reportedly to excellent effect. The 2008 performances, however, in Norwich, Ely and London, were accompanied by the Britten Sinfonia. Though not possessed of original instruments, their playing is a world removed from that of the Liverpool Phil on the Sargent recordings, embodying a real via media between them and period orchestras.

For the performance on 21 December, 2008, which Melanie Eskanzi attended, it appears that Allan Clayton was in less than perfect voice; she noted that he ‘negotiated the florid passages of his arias skilfully, the voice very confident in production yet at times lacking in sensitivity and tending towards a little coarseness at the lower end of the stave’ – see review. I was, nevertheless, very pleased that in the recording, made on the two days after the performance, he seems to have overcome these problems. From the outset he shows no sign of the tenor ‘nerves’ which all too often surface in live performances and even on record of the opening recit and aria Comfort ye ... Every valley shall be exalted and his singing throughout is much improved on what ME heard live.

She actually used those words about phrasing and colouring in the first instance of Iestyn Davies in 2006, though she thought them applicable to the whole of that performance. Davies’s singing on these CDs is equally impressive; not once did I crave a mezzo or contralto in any of the music which he sings. Considering that he had been suffering from a virus and had to be replaced for the second half of the concert on the 21st, the extent of his recovery on the two following days is miraculous. All the solo singing is good, but I’m inclined to award Davies the palm.

Julia Doyle and Andrew Foster-Williams, too, sound as well on the CDs as they apparently did in live performance. Doyle gives just about the most impressive performance of I know that my redeemer liveth that I have ever heard. Foster-Williams may well have made the rafters ring on the night, but he achieves that power with a pleasantly light-bass, almost baritonal voice.

I’ve already indicated that the playing of the Britten Sinfonia forestalled any yearning for period instruments. Though the use of these on the Coro/Sixteen recording is both apt and striking, the Sinfonia’s lightness of touch is ample compensation.

ME reserved her greatest praise for the choristers of Polyphony itself and I concur wholeheartedly. This is not a live recording, merely one made in conjunction with a live performance; for once, I think I’d have been prepared to put up with the shortcomings which ME noted for the sake of hearing the acclamation which, she reports, was so fully justified. Another reviewer of the live concert noted that the members of Polyphony regularly buried their heads in the books; from the way that they sing on the CDs, you would never imagine that to have been the case.

The Hyperion recording is not spectacular, but it is of that happy kind which places no significant barrier between the listener and the performance. Surround-sound enthusiasts would doubtless have preferred SACD; otherwise it isn’t difficult to imagine oneself in the audience at St John’s.

The presentation is, as always with Hyperion, excellent, with first-class notes by Anthony Hicks and a personal note from Stephen Layton.

This now replaces Mackerras and Somary in my collection as my middle-way preference among my versions of choice. It won’t replace the Coro/Sixteen and Linn/Dunedin Consort recordings but I shall listen to it with pleasure as an alternative to them. Handel’s yoke in this version is indeed easy and it is no burden at all to listen yet again to a Messiah which presses just about all the right buttons.

Brian Wilson 

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