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

By Thor Eckert Jr. / December 23, 1985

New York

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.

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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.

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.