Over the past few decades Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have performed Messiah about 150 times. This new Coro recording presents them to better advantage than their uneven 1987 version for Hyperion: the choir remains excellent 21 years later 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.