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Annual live performances of Handel's Messiah at St. John's Smith Square with Polyphony and Stephen Layton have become one of the highlights of the musical season. The joyful sincerity and brilliance of the performers has brought this familiar story to vivid life again and again. Now this wonderful experience is available on disc, recorded in 2008 for a new release that will surely prove to be a strong competitor even in a crowded market. Polyphony is joined by the Britten Sinfonia and a quartet of magnificent young soloists -- all variously acclaimed as the premier Handel singers of the new generation.
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This is the closest I've found, but it COULD have been a lot closer. I'd give the performance at least a 9 out of 10. Sadly, the recording engineer / mixer did it no favors. Transitions between selections are abrupt and harsh. The (excessive) background noise is not faded in and out smoothly at the beginning and end of many selections. The choir is mixed at a significantly lower volume than the rest of the music - it sounds like they're in another room.
I've only a minor quibble about the performance. The production is clean with strong solo vocals, but it feels somehow too clinical - the emotion is a bit subdued in both the vocals and the instrumentals.
I'll continue my search for the perfect Messiah, but this recording is for now ranks right alongside my Malcom Sargent version.
Polyphony is new to me, but what a chorus they are. Their sound is of average size, yet incredibly transparent with great attention to detail and nuance. Their diction is as good as the chorus of Boston Baroque's is in their "Messiah" recording. Polyphony has a wonderful ability to weave in and out of the counterpoint of the choruses leaving the listener taking in all the shapes, lines and contours all at once. Its a thrilling sensation.
The Britten Sinfonia is outstanding as well. Their playing is clean and articulate. They respond well to Layton's vision of "Messiah" and play an integral part of this performance. While listening, you will be aware of their contribution to what is considered a choral work. They demand your attention.
The four soloists, Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton, and Andrew Foster-Williams are simply all in top form. They are effective in their singing, whether it be the more slow cerebral parts of the work or the rapid coloratura parts. They don't miss a beat. Their ornamentation is never obtrusive and is well worked within their respective solos.
As for Stephen Layton....Bravo! What a splendid treat this recording is. Not knowing what to expect upon purchasing this Hyperion recording, I was pleasantly knocked over within minutes into disc one. The question then arose, "will it keep being this good?' The answer was(and is), "yes."
This Christmas season (or at any time) treat yourself to this wonderful new recording of "Messiah." It easily falls into the heap of the top five recorded takes on Handel's warhorse. It's a gem!!