Handel's MessiahHandel's Messiah

The Gramophone Choice

Messiah (Dublin version, 1742)

Susan Hamilton sop Clare Wilkinson, Annie Gill, Heather Cairncross mez Nicholas Mulroy ten Matthew Brook bar Edward Caswell bass Dunedin Consort / John Butt

Linn CKD285 (138’ · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon

For an infinitely rewarding fresh look at Handel’s most familiar music, look no further than the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s first version, premiered at Dublin in 1742. Bizarrely under-represented in concert and on disc, the Dublin score contains some fascinating music that Handel never reused, such as the substantial chorus ‘Break forth into joy’. The exuberant direction by harpsichordist John Butt is meticulously stylish and utterly devoid of crassly pretentious egotism. The playing is unerringly spontaneous and dramatically integrated with singers who illustrate profound appreciation of text. Clare Wilkinson’s ‘He was despised’ is most moving, Susan Hamilton effortlessly skips through a delicious ‘Rejoice greatly’, and bass Matthew Brook sings as if his life depends on it.

Butt bravely resolves to use the same forces Handel had at his disposal in Dublin, which means that the entire oratorio is sung by a dozen singers (with all soloists required to participate in the choruses, as Handel would have expected). Where this approach might risk worthy dull solos churned out by stalwart choir members, the Dunedin Consort’s exemplary singers produce virtuoso choruses that are theatrically charged, splendidly poised and exquisitely blended. Old warhorses ‘For unto us a child is born’ and ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ are delightfully inspiring. Butt and the Dunedin Consort marry astute scholarship to sincere artistic expression and the result is comfortably the freshest, most natural, revelatory and transparently joyful Messiah to have appeared for a very long time. 

 

Additional Recommendations

Carolyn Sampson sop Catherine Wyn-Rogers contr Mark Padmore ten Christopher Purves bass The Sixteen; Orchestra of The Sixteen / Harry Christophers

Coro COR16062 (145’ · DDD) Includes bonus excerpts disc of previous Handel recordings by The Sixteen. Buy from Amazon

This new recording presents The Sixteen to ­better advantage than their uneven 1987 version for Hyperion: the choir remains excellent 21 years on but the orchestra and soloists are a vast improvement. Only one member of the choir and two orchestral players repeat their roles in the 2008 performance, and the violin section has swelled from seven to 12, which helps to produce a stronger theatrical sound. Christophers’s interpretation nowadays is just over four minutes longer than it was in 1987, so there are no radical changes in his overall pacing, but taking a few things a notch slower suggests an increased confidence and maturity.

The contribution from the oboes is more telling and to the fore than one usually hears, although the prominence of the organ as a continuo instrument is seldom convincing (nor is the use of theorbo accompaniment in recitatives). The Sixteen’s choral singing has clarity, balance, shapely moulding of contrapuntal lines and plenty of unforced power. When necessary, resonant homophonic grandeur is achieved without pomposity. The contrast between the playful and solemn parts of ‘All we like sheep’ is wondrously realised, and the soft sections of ‘Since by man came death’ are breathtaking.

Three of the soloists earned their spurs as members of The Sixteen. Mark Padmore, a choir member in 1987 and here making his third (and best) Messiah recording as a soloist, could be a little lighter in ‘Comfort ye’, but his evangelical communication of words is highly effective in ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’. Carolyn Sampson and the orchestra’s violins relish an equal dialogue in ‘Rejoice greatly’, and her coloratura sparkles with clarity and assurance. Christopher Purves sings ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ more softly than one usually hears, and ‘The trumpet shall sound’ is lyrical and suave (with splendid obbligato from Robert Farley). Christophers conducts with finesse and integrity. This fine team performance is a safe recommendation for anyone wanting to acquire an all-purpose ‘period’ Messiah.

 

Julia Doyle sop Iestyn Davies counterten Allan Clayton ten Andrew Foster-Williams bass Polyphony; Britten Sinfonia / Stephen Layton

Hyperion CDA67800 (134’ · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon

Polyphony have given annual Christmas performances of Messiah at St John’s, Smith Square, for 15 years and this set is based on the 2008 run of performances featuring the Britten Sinfonia. Perhaps some might find the use of modern instruments (rather than period ones) a major talking-point. But it isn’t as if hearing generally stylish ‘traditional’ performances of Messiah is rare. 

There is a lot to like about this engaging performance. Allan Clayton’s ‘Comfort ye’ conspicuously lacks its ‘y’, but in all other respects the four soloists are ideal. Julia Doyle is a charismatic Angel/narrator in the pastoral scene, and her embellished recapitulation of the line ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is spine-tingling. Andrew Foster-Williams’s singing is marvellous (‘Why do the nations’ is thrillingly dispatched, and he holds the listener in the palm of his hand as he confides ‘Behold I tell you a mystery’). The well-rounded tone and technical precision of Iestyn Davies’s singing is easy to enjoy, but it is equally significant that his ornamentation in ‘But who may abide’ is masterly for its stylish vocabulary and expressive wisdom (Layton’s dramatic explosion of the strings for ‘the refiner’s fire’ is startling). 

There are a few stylistic solecisms that do not improve on Handel’s practices. There is too much churchy organ in recitatives, and the use of solo violin in several arias is not preferable to unison fiddles, although the use of a solitary string bass note as the cue for ‘Since by man came death’ is effective. Proceedings are occasionally a shade over-conducted, too sculpted and self-conscious, but Layton’s affection for the oratorio is frequently discernible, not least in the technical and communicative qualities of Polyphony’s exceptional singing of the choruses. This Messiah is calculated to keep certain questions open, and one doesn’t have to agree with all of the proposed answers in order to find it enjoyable. It certainly has strong musical appeal and a probing nature.

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