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Handel: Messiah / Sorrell, Apollo's Fire

Handel / Apollo's Fire / Sorrell
Release Date: 11/09/2010 
Label:  Avie   Catalog #: 2208  
Composer:  George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Ross HauckElizabeth ShammashIan HoneymanAmanda Forsythe,   ... 
Conductor:  Jeannette Sorrell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Apollo's Fire
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HANDEL Messiah & Jeannette Sorrell, cond; Amanda Forsythe (sop); Elizabeth Shammash (mez); Ian Honeyman, Ross Hauck (tenor); Jeffrey Strauss (bs); Apollo’s Singers; Apollo’s Fire (period instruments) AVIE AV2208 (2 CDs: 132: 11) Live: Cleveland 12/12–13/2008

& DVD with footage from rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions and interviews with soloists, principal players, and Sorrell (32:52)

Read more /> So many Messiah s, and it’s never the one you’re waiting for—but this recording, by the youthfully vibrant Cleveland outfit Apollo’s Fire might just be the answer to the prayers of those hoping for freshness, clarity, and no-holds-barred enthusiasm. You won’t hear any world-class singing or playing here, but if you are jaded after experiencing the many so-so versions featuring just that yet lacking what Shaw so memorably called “unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression,” then you should listen to this recording.

Founded and directed by Jeannette Sorrell, this ensemble might be less romantically called the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, and judging from the comments provided, it is not well known outside of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It ought to be. The playing contrives to suggest an almost improvisatory quality, with alacrity of attack on the notes and brightness of sound more important than smoothness. This is not to imply any lack of accuracy or fidelity to the score, rather a sense that both players and singers are coming to the work with a fresh perspective.

The approach is perhaps best heard in the sections from “And the Angel Said Unto Them” to “He Shall Feed His Flock” in the first part. Soprano Amanda Forsythe has a very strong, clear voice, tending more toward the astringent than the velvety, and her tone at “And Suddenly” is immediately arresting, ushering in a “Glory to God” that sounds as though the chorus actually means it. This is followed by a “Rejoice Greatly” that respects the minuet tempo of the piece without indulging in excessive speed, and a devoted but not sentimental performance of “He Shall Feed His Flock.”

Ross Hauck’s forthright singing of “Ev’ry Valley” is clean and fresh, but he is not up there with the best in this very competitive field; the same is true of Elizabeth Shammash’s “He Was Despised,” which is evenly projected but not at the level of, say, Iestyn Davies (for Higginbottom, on Naxos). Jeffrey Strauss sings “The Trumpet Shall Sound” with plenty of gusto, but he too is no match for the top of the range, which in my view is Alastair Miles (for Cleobury, on Argo).

However, starry soloists are not the only prerequisite for a recommendable Messiah —a well-focused choir is essential, and here Apollo’s Singers show both discipline and abandon where required, sometimes providing singing that leans toward the Act of Religion style, sometimes the Diversion where appropriate. The playing is lucid, forceful, and supportive, with the overall feel of a group of friends collaborating for enjoyment.

The recorded sound is crisp and fresh, and the presentation classy, with an informative essay on the work’s background.

There is no one definitive version of this masterpiece; my personal favorite is the recording by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, under Stephen Cleobury, on Argo, closely followed by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner on Philips. If you’re in the market for a new Messiah that promises much and rewards your expectations with performances of youthful fire and commitment, then you should add this recording to your collection; it’s certainly one to which I intend to return.

FANFARE: Melanie Eskenazi
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Works on This Recording

Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Ross Hauck (Tenor), Elizabeth Shammash (Mezzo Soprano), Ian Honeyman (Tenor),
Amanda Forsythe (Soprano), Jeffrey Strauss (Baritone)
Conductor:  Jeannette Sorrell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Apollo's Fire
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741; London, England 

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