Notes and Editorial Reviews
HANDEL Messiah • John Rutter, cond; Joanne Lunn (sop); Melanie Marshall (alt); James Gilchrist (ten); Christopher Purves (bar); Royal PO; Cambridge Singers • HENDRICKSON PUBLISHERS 56126X (2 CDs 136:34 Text and Translation)
The popularity of Messiah makes it difficult for us to comprehend that for Handel it was—to use a colloquial term—a crapshoot; it was not commissioned, nor were there guarantees for performances. It is the only truly sacred oratorio that Handel composed. It was also the only one performed during his lifetime in what Christopher Hogwood termed “a consecrated building,” and yet it was meant—in the words of its librettist, Charles Jennens—as “a fine Entertainment.”
There are any number of legends
associated with the composition Messiah, including meals brought by Handel’s servant and later removed uneaten, of his tears mixed with ink, and the most famous being Handel’s alleged words, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself!” These are fodder for a romantic novelist, but the truth is Handel applied appropriate self-discipline when dealing with the subject matter. In addition to the spartan orchestration, the opportunities for vocal display are held in check (Handel used only four da capo arias in the operatic style).
The state of Handel’s autograph score—including ink blots, erasures, and changes cluttering the manuscript until the very end—provides written testimony to the hurried completion of the work. Even though Handel completed Messiah in three weeks, there is very little evidence of him pilfering material from his other compositions. “And He shall purify,” “His yoke is easy,” “For unto us a child is born,” and “All we like sheep” are taken from Italian chamber cantatas written earlier, but for the most part, the music in Messiah is indigenous to the work.
Some who purchase Messiah are not interested in either the stories associated with it or what music Handel pinched from his other compositions; they are attracted to the music, the conductor, and the soloists. So the conductor who tackles Messiah must be plucky, for the competition is fierce and the field overcrowded with excellent recordings, including several that utilize Mozart’s orchestration for Vienna performances in 1789.
John Rutter’s name, when attached to any recording, is guaranteed sale, for there are very few choral singers who haven’t performed his music, heard it in concert, or broadcast. Here the esteemed conductor expands his musical horizon in what may be the first in a series of recordings for Hendrickson Publications. Rutter’s recording is a traditional approach to this iconic work; it includes no surprises. All of the arias are presented in their familiar versions and Rutter’s soloists avail themselves of opportunities for appropriate ornamentation, but their choices are tasteful, and never extravagant.
The soloists will not be familiar to many, but they are clearly exceptional in their understanding and execution of the music, singing with enviable emotion, gravitas, and tenderness, making them far more than merely reliable participants. Rutter’s Cambridge Singers are equally impressive in their poise, agility, verve, and beauty of tone. The musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are on their game as well, supporting the soloists and chorus with effective, stylish, and energetic playing throughout. The acoustics of All Hallows, Gospel Oak, provide the ideal sonic warmth and aural bloom without obfuscating Handel’s textures. This release effectively combines tradition, scholarship, and common sense in a way that few have or can.
Rutter’s excellent feel for this music, his intelligence, and his sturdy and steady hand, make this—in my opinion—the finest modern-instrument recording since the legendary Philips release by Colin Davis in the mid 1960s. If you cannot tear yourself away from period-instrument recordings, then you may want to investigate the releases by the Gabrieli Consort (Archiv 453 464) or the Tavener Consort (Virgin 61330). There is also an excellent release by Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque orchestra and chorus, available through their Web site, www.apollosfire.org.
FANFARE: Michael Carter
Works on This Recording
Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Christopher Purves (Bass),
Joanne Lunn (Soprano),
James Gilchrist (Tenor),
Melanie Marshall (Mezzo Soprano),
Christopher Purves (Baritone)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1741; London, England
Featured Sound Samples
Part I: Air: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion"
Part II: Chorus: "All we like sheep have gone astray"
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