MESSIAH: Modern big-chorus sound, or Handel's original mode

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HOW many people have really heard Handel's ``Messiah'' over the years? This enduring masterwork has been encountered by countless millions, yet for the better part of the work's performance history, it has been heard in bloated performances that have little to do with the intimate oratorio Handel created to be heard in a room that sat 500.

Of course, most current ``Messiah'' performances take place in halls that seat 2,000 or more -- a space that would dwarf Handel's original orchestra of 39 and chorus of 23. Today, thanks to recordings, we have a chance to experience a more authentic ``Messiah'' without having to give up the undeniable thrill of an old-fashioned ``Messiah'' sing-out. In the past year or so, six new recordings of ``Messiah'' have been issued, all of which I listened to on compact disc (see below). Three conductors (Chris opher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner, and Ton Koopman) use small orchestras of period (or original) instruments with equally small choirs and soloists who know how to embellish the vocal line in Handelian style.

Of the three others, only Sir Georg Solti's recording stands slightly apart from the new influences of Handel scholarship. He favors a lean but string-heavy orchestral sound, where Handel favored winds, and his virtuosic chorus sounds slightly overripe. Two other conductors -- Sir Colin Davis and Robert Shaw -- successfully achieve a middle ground in performance practice.

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Today, no serious ``Messiah'' fan can afford to be without at least two recordings -- one with original instruments, the other in the more modern mode. For to know ``Messiah'' only as a rousing choral /vocal work is to have little idea of just how skillful and inventive the musical writing really is. Handel's use of rhythms and blends in the orchestra, the very careful juxtaposition of instruments and choral voices -- reveal a fertility and spontaneity that can best be heard on period instruments.

All six of these performances have considerable strengths. Unfortunately, for those who chose a ``Messiah'' primarily for the solo singing, there is still no ideal lineup of singers on any one set. In the soprano music, the most glamorous voice belongs to Kiri Te Kanawa (with Solti), who sounds magnificent indeed, even if she does little with the words. Margaret Price (Davis) is a glorious asset with her radiant, expressive singing. The most imaginative vocalist is Marjanne Kweksilber (Koopman) -- a un iquely spontaneous and heartfelt artist, outstanding in her embellishments of the repeat verses. Of the various mezzos, Catherine Robbin (Gardiner) offers the most pleasure, while Koopman uses alto James Bowman, whose voice is an acquired taste.

Among the tenors, Stuart Burrows (Davis) is now my candidate for best ``Messiah'' tenor on records, though Jon Humphrey (Shaw) is consistently tasteful. Disturbing singing comes from two basses: Gwynne Howell (Solti) sings consistently above the pitch; Simon Estes enunciates imprecisely and sings little of the passagework cleanly or musically. Happily, Gregory Reinhart (Koopman) establishes himself as the finest bass on a stereo ``Messiah,'' and Richard Stilwell (Shaw) makes lightweight though unusual ly expressive contributions.

Davis uses a German chorus -- the Bavarian Radio Orchestra Choir -- but, a few odd vowels aside, it hardly shows. Hogwood uses boy sopranos -- a sound that becomes slightly monotonous over the length of the work. Koopman's Choeur ``The Sixteen'' is decidedly the most committed, yet the finest overall choral work is on Shaw's recording.

Of the modern approaches, I find Colin Davis's deeply satisfying. The balances within the Bavarian Radio Orchestra are wonderfully transparent, and the playing is glorious. The Bavarian Radio Choir may have a few problems with vowels, but their diction remains remarkably clear. Two of his soloists are outstanding. Solti, in his somewhat grandiose way, is very persuasive and often downright beautiful. Shaw's performance is consistently affecting, with its expressive choral work, lively playing from the A tlanta Symphony, and a well-matched quintet of soloists.

Of the authenticists, I was especially taken with the Koopman performance. It is the most spontaneous of the six, perhaps because it was recorded live. One senses that all involved find this vital music. By comparison, the recording by Christopher Hogwood -- the first to seriously attempt to re-create what Handel might have heard -- sounds overly tidy, and the generally vibratoless solo singing sounds anemic to the modern ear. John Eliot Gardiner's performance lands between Koopman and Hogwood in sound,

yet captures something of the spirit of a grandly choral ``Messiah'' as well. His orchestra, the English Baroque Soloists, sounds lovely.

CDs should make for ideal listening in a ``Messiah.'' Most performances can fit on two discs, even if it means a disc break during Part 2. Only London (Solti) and Telarc (Shaw), however, are so considerate of the price-conscious consumer. Davis's timings are such that his reading had to be on three CDs, with one part per disc. L'Oiseau-Lyre (Hogwood) and Philips (Gardiner) follow that formula, too, though the performances could have fitted onto two CDs. Erato inexplicably opts for awkward disc breaks du ring Parts 1 and 2, despite timings that would have comfortably allowed for a two-CD ``Messiah.'' It is the sort of unthinking CD policy that wins no friends for a recording company and is no aid to the consumer. Take your pick: six recent recordings of `Messiah'

Margaret Price (soprano), Hanna Schwarz (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Burrows (tenor), Simon Estes (bass). Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor. (Philips digital 412 538-1 [3-LP]; 412 538-2 [3-CD.])

Margaret Marshall (soprano), Catherine Robbin (mezzo-soprano), Charles Brett (countertenor), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor), Robert Hale (bass). Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. (Philips digital 411 041-1 [3-LP]; 411 041-2 [3-CD.])

Judith Nelson (soprano 1), Emma Kirkby (soprano 2), Carolyn Watkinson (contralto), Paul Elliott (tenor), David Thomas (bass). Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; the Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor. (L'Oiseau Lyre D189D3 [3-LP]; 411 858-2 [3-CD].)

Marjanne Kweksilber (soprano), James Bowman (alto), Paul Elliott (tenor), Gregory Reinhart (bass). Choeur ``The Sixteen''; the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Ton Koopman, conductor. (Erato digital NUM 751303 [3-LP]; ECD 880503 [3-CD.])

Kaaren Erickson (soprano 1), Sylvia McNair (soprano 2), Alfreda Hodgson (mezzo-soprano), Jon Humphrey (tenor), Richard Stilwell (baritone). Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus and Orchestra, Robert Shaw, conductor. (Telarc digital CD 80093-2 [2 CD]; not available on LP.)

Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano), Anne Gjevang (mezzo-soprano), Keith Lewis (tenor), Gwynne Howell (bass). Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, conductor. (London digital 414 396-1 [3-LP]; 414 396-2 [2-CD].)

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