George Frideric Handel: Messiah
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Handel: Messiah, HWV 56 (Live)
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As a steady favourite with audiences, Handel's most famous oratorio "Messiah" has met regularly with rapturous receptions ever since its premiere back in 1742! This three-part masterpiece portrays the life of the "anointed one" (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word 'Messiah'), from the Annunciation and his birth to his death on the cross and revelation, and contains a considerable number of baroque super-hits - including the world-famous 'Hallelujah Chorus'. What makes the present complete recording into something really special is, above all, the successful interpretation with its excellent line-up of performers: Julia Doyle, Lawrence Zazzo, Steve Davislim and Neal Davies, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (recently called "a new center for historically informed performance practice") under the overall direction of Peter Dijkstra, accompanied by B'Rock, the Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent.
Classics Today: Artistic Quality 9 / Sound Quality 10
"Dijkstra understands the dramatic necessities and organizational demands of a large work of many and varied parts, and he brings it all together with managerial skill and interpretive insight comparable to the best on disc; the energized performers and charged ambience owe much to the benefit of the live concert setting, performances in Munich in November, 2014. I'll never be one to say that the world has too many Messiah recordings, especially if the next new one is as good as this." --David Hurwitz, Classicstoday.com, 2015
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Performance style in Messiah has settled into its own comfort zone, and this excellent new version under the talented Dutch chorus master Peter Dijkstra makes no pretense of breaking new ground. Where Bach studies contain hot-button issues, angry disputes, and considerable confusion over right and wrong practices, Messiah belongs to the consumer products division of Baroque performance. The shelves are laden with enough choices—arkivmusic.com currently lists 91 complete recordings—that it’s a buyer’s market. Traditionalists can time travel back to high-Victorian choral festivals with Beecham and Boult or prune the regiments of singers down to modified traditionalism with Richard Westenburg or Andrew Davis. But we sheep don’t generally go astray anymore, adhering to some form of HIP style that Handel himself would have recognized.
With Colin Davis laying down the template for reduced forces and (more importantly) minimized piousness fifty years ago, the flight from tradition has accelerated over the years. I still love Davis’s first Messiah (Philips), but it was Robert Shaw’s use of a small, highly professional chorus around the same time (RCA) that revealed how difficult Handel’s choral writing really is and how magnificent it sounds when approached with superior technique. In that regard, Dijkstra works much the same magic with his small (32 members) Bavarian Radio Chorus, singing in impeccable English—even the German habit of pronouncing “the” as “theh” has been corrected—and displaying faultless musicality.
But technical hurdles matter little in the modern landscape of Handel singing. More critical is the tendency, as I see it, to make Messiah too meek and mild. The Baroque was an international movement in all the arts that drew popular attention for its extravagance, luxury, unbounded love of decoration, and fervent emotion. Handel was the master of all these qualities, and we wouldn’t have the near-violence of the vocal line in “Why do the nations rage?” without the revenge arias that preceded it in his Italian operas. In addition, the liberalization of religious tolerance begun under the Hanoverian kings permitted biblical verses and stories to appear in theaters instead of churches, but this didn’t mean that Messiah was considered frivolous—starting with the composer himself, it was accepted as deeply devotional as well as dramatic.
I’ve mounted my hobby horse because the model for modern performances seems bleached of reverence and human drama. Gardiner, Pinnock, Hogwood, and Parrott set in place a non-reverential style that’s not very entertaining either. One understands why there was a (predictable) reaction against churchiness. Fortunately, the consumer shelf does contain recordings that exude drama, like William Christie’s, and even stretch the limits of excited energy, as Marc Minkowski does. Yet scanning my memory for a Messiah that’s just right, I’d plump for this new release as one of the very best.
It’s still on the meek side at times—as in the simpering tone of “He was despised” where anguish is called for, but far more important is the human drama unfolded by Dijkstra, who takes a mystical view of the coming savior— to minimize controversy over portraying Christ on stage, Messiah’s text avoids the New Testament in favor of the Old, where the topic is not Jesus but the One who is to come. “Behold the lamb of God” is done with hushed awe and great sensitivity to what it means for the devout to contemplate a redeemed world. Eschewing fervency, the general style in the arias is gentle and humane. But Dijkstra skirts meekness by giving us a reading that’s quietly soulful. Nothing is antiseptic. This is definitely not music for music’s sake, which has been a baleful tendency in HIP aesthetics.
The two soloists who stand out among the four are tenor Steve Davislim, and bass-baritone Neal Davies. Both take the inherent drama of their arias seriously and sing out with passion and force. The score is notorious vocally for giving the tenor two of the most difficult solos in the whole work, “Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley,” right off the bat. Davislim handles both with a beautiful, steady tone that rivals anyone I’ve ever heard. Davies is given “The people that walked in darkness” at a pace quick enough not to turn into a dirge, and he rises to the occasion with a version of “The trumpet shall sound” that remains engrossing from beginning to end. Overall, he performs with the kind of bite and bravura not heard since John Shirley-Quirk under Colin Davis.
The other two soloists are considerably less forceful. Soprano Julia Doyle has a light, flutey voice that’s capable of swift agility—no one has ever taken “Rejoice greatly” faster, I’ll wager, complete with a few high-flying ornaments—but she’s short on pathos. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, taking the alto solos, poses no fear of sounding squawky or androgynous. He has a beautiful, feminine tone, but there’s not much power or force. Like Doyle, he’s also short on pathos and depth of feeling. Even so, the entire quartet is lively and musical.
I’m not sure that liveliness should be the prevailing tone of a Messiah performance, but such is the age we’re passing through. Dijkstra’s rhythms spring and dance all the time, even in the solemnity of “Lift up your heads,” for example. At least his sprung rhythms aren’t like mousetraps snapping shut on your finger. There’s a pleasing warmth and roundness to the singing and playing here. The small B’rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra displays a sweet, feathery string sound using gut strings that never grows zingy. Dijkstra is an excellent orchestral conductor, which helps to unify everything that happens, but there’s little prominence to the oboes and bassoon discreetly buried inside the string ensemble. (We aren’t given a personnel roster, so I’m counting heads and squinting at a small photo to glean any details about who is on stage.)
Finally, there’s the question of editions and variants, about which I can say next to nothing since the booklet is silent on both subjects. “Rejoice greatly” is done in the standard 4/4 meter rather than the easier revision in triplets. Vocal ornamentation is added, most of the time, to da capo repeats; Handel’s melodic lines aren’t actually rewritten, however. I hear variants in the choral writing, too, but only in passing. Dijkstra has taken the position that the dynamic range of the music is limited, hovering around mezzo forte much of the time—no whispering in terror or shouting in jubilation allowed. Therefore, we aren’t talking about a performance where religious feeling embraces the widest range of emotions. I’m just grateful that Messiah is treated as what it was meant to be, a religious entertainment to uplift and excite its audience. Excellent recorded sound; cardboard packaging with text in English and German.
Where does this release fall in the continuum of possibilities?
Well, let's start with size or number of players and singers. The period instrument band that accompanies is from Ghent, Belgium. It's not a shy outfit, if that is what anybdy was expecting. The nuances are lively, welcome and above all, consistently stylish. A sense of underlying dance music forms comes through, though nothing is sung or played to diminish the path-breaking ways that Handel draws on traditions while inventing and re-inventing what was then becoming that new musical thing, the oratorio.
If the period instrument players are alert and generous, the medium sized chorus (Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks) also rises to the occasion with superlative singing that would be very difficult to better, no matter whom else a listener tries out for choral comparisons. Their director, Peter Dijkstra, is leaving soon to take up the Netherlands Chamber Choir as his musical residence, so this particular release can hardly help having a special tinge of valedictory address to dance through its admittedly high sense of celebration. Remember, please, this is a 'live' recording, so its peerless Period Instrument and Choral technique was captured, right on the spot. Bravo!
As tends to be the case when it comes to Messiah soloists, we get a bit of a mixed bag. Soprano Julia Doyle repeats her entirely lovely reading with warm deepening, having sung this part with Stephen Layton and Polyphony in a bright and shining set on label, Hyperion. Our tenor is Steve Davislim. His voice is a wonderful thing just in itself, physically and musically speaking. Hearing him in Handel's writing for tenor is as gossamer indelible a moment as sipping a priceless aged port served in an etched lead crystal tumbler with platinum rim. If he survives comparisons with great Messiah singers of the past, by the end of the second Passion-telling section, I doubt that anyone will wish to exchange him at all. Bravo!
The third singer is countertenor Laurence Zazzo. He has a stronger voice than many countertenors who have borne the challenges of Handel's drama, as well as the composer's florid writing. Let me admit that I find it hard to hear any countertenor so far recorded sing the Part Two aria, He was despised. I still have women like Dame Janet Baker, Yvonne Minton, Bernarda Fink, Monica Groop – and yes, the inimitable Kathleen Ferrier – occupying my ears' imagination when it comes to Handel and the Messiah. That said, Zazzo commits without reservation, and wins kudos. His singing is dramatically involved, and he has his shining moments in some of the more florid writing. He ends the Despised aria with an especially floating yet intense legato that, yes, touches a listener's heart. Even a hardened old thumper like mine.
Fourth, we are left hearing Bass-Baritone Neal Davies. He is perhaps the most experienced Messiah soloist of the four at hand. He really does little wrong, dramatically or musically. Listening to his aria, The trumpet shall sound, ends up being a clincher moment. So, too, is the rage aria that comes earlier, conveying both stylish flourishes and narrative vigor.
It was long before the final great Handel fugue on 'Amen' that this set joined all the others kept. I suppose some might gripe that things are so middling and mainstream here, despite all the allure and what anybody must recognize as outstanding singing and playing. I suspect this set will have staying power, just like one of my other favorites led by the late Sir Charles Mackerras. (EMI, now Warner, if it gets re-released?) Bravo!