Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Frieder Bernius, cond; Carolyn Sampson (sop); Daniel Taylor (ct); Benjamin Hulett (ten); Peter Harvey (bs); Stuttgart Baroque O & CCh (period instruments)
CARUS 83.219 (2 Hybrid multichannel SACDs: 139:11
Text and Translation)
the production of new recordings of Handel’s most popular oratorio there seems to be no end. Any conductor contemplating adding his version to an immensely overcrowded field faces a daunting task. What can he do that will set his interpretation apart and make it worthy of consideration? Because
was frequently revived during Handel’s lifetime with changes to accommodate the current cast, there are many variant readings from which a conductor can choose. That offers one approach: present something based on a specific performance that uses variants not often recorded. A second possibility is to offer a performance worthy of being placed in the top rank of available recordings. Bernius chooses to attempt the latter.
The edition offered by Bernius is what has become a fairly standard choice of alternative readings from approximately 1749 and later. The main choices are: in part I, “But who may abide” for alto; the long version of the Pifa; the 4/4 version of “Rejoice greatly,” and “He shall feed his flock” shared by alto and soprano; in part II, “Thou art gone up on high” in the late version for alto and the long version of “Why do the nations”; and in part III, the short version of “Death, where is thy sting” and the soprano version of “If God be for us.” This probably does not correspond to any particular Handel performance, but the choices are reasonable and popular. I have at least five recordings that make exactly the same choices and others which differ in only one or two instances.
The question then becomes, is Bernius’s recording good enough to place it among the best available versions? The short answer is yes. Although I have a few small criticisms of the performance, it is among the best period-instrument versions I know. To begin with the conductor, Bernius, leads a reasonably paced performance that is occasionally just a bit fast but not outrageously so. I do believe, however, that he overuses the organ, often using it in place of the harpsichord in arias. On the positive side, there is no theorbo or lute; on the basis of many recordings I have heard lately, I had feared that the theorbo would entirely replace the
in period-instrument recordings before long. The Barockorchester Stuttgart was founded by Bernius and plays very well for him. The Kammerchor Stuttgart is large enough, 30 voices, to do justice to Handel’s choruses. They sing very clearly, despite the fact that English is not their native tongue, although they sometimes give weak emphasis to a syllable that an English choir would know should be stressed more. At times, the choir sounds somewhat distant compared to the soloists, but not always. I assume this is an engineering problem and not a choice of the conductor.
The soloists are all excellent. Carolyn Sampson is well known from many recordings. She is in marvelous voice here, even when asked to cope with a tempo that is a bit too fast in “Rejoice Greatly.” Benjamin Hulett’s firm lyric tenor voice is a great pleasure to hear. Peter Harvey meets the challenges of his music with a beautiful voice and displays thrilling technique in the bravura “Why do the nations” and “The trumpet shall sound.” All three are among the best soloists I have heard in
recordings. About Daniel Taylor I am slightly less enthusiastic. He sings well enough and has great technical skills, but his lowest notes are occasionally weak. Still, his performance is a positive contribution to the recording. All of the singers add tasteful ornaments to their music where appropriate.
Among period-instrument performances of
, I have been especially impressed recently with Harry Christophers’ second recording, available on Coro; that performance and Trevor Pinnock’s Archiv recording are among the best available. This new recording by Bernius now joins them among my favorites.
FANFARE: Ron Salemi
This is a very good Messiah--excellent in many respects--and it would have been among the reference versions but for a couple of issues. Thankfully the four ideally chosen soloists respect period-performance style with tasteful, durable, judiciously placed ornaments that justly enhance the expressive character of the airs and recits without (but for one notable exception) the "look at me" gestures that may work one time in a concert but don't hold up well over repeated listening. The exception: tenor Benjamin Hulett's silly 12-second-long (no kidding) first syllable on "Comfort..." in the fifth bar of his opening recitative. Yes, the unaccompanied measure is marked ad libitum, but really! This is an unjustifiable indulgence that distracts from the sense of the text and violates the spirit of the music. Conductor Frieder Bernius, who makes consistently intelligent, musically wise decisions throughout the rest of the performance should have squelched this unnecessary piece of theater. Okay, it's only a few seconds out of a couple of hours' performance, but its sheer audacity and incongruity with the rest of the reading makes it an issue.
But most Messiah aficionados will find ample cause for praise, especially in the chorus' well-articulated phrasing and clean execution of individual lines, delivered without ever sounding precious or self-conscious. "Behold the Lamb of God" probably is the most sensitively sung, evocatively phrased, and ideally paced version on disc. Likewise, you would be hard pressed to find a more beautifully rendered "He was despised" aria than Daniel Taylor's. This is one of Messiah's potentially more tedious moments, but Taylor and Bernius bring it an engaging immediacy that it rarely achieves, highlighted by the impressively articulate orchestra's gracious imitation of Taylor's ornaments near the aria's end.
There are many such moments in this performance, including Peter Harvey's "The trumpet shall sound" and Hulett's opportune explication of the air/recit sequence from "All they that see Him" to "Thou didst not leave His soul in hell". The choruses are dynamic and exceptionally well sung--but with one major caution: if you are interested in clearly understanding the words the choir is singing, you will be disappointed because for the most part the vowels and consonants are absorbed into the overall choral texture and timbre. And this is a shame because it's obvious that the choir knows its stuff.
Bernius is very successful with his choice of tempos--and with this virtuoso choir of 30 voices, even the very rapid "And He shall purify" and "His yoke is easy" somehow sound perfectly natural and, well, "easy" rather than forced or rushed as these choruses often do. The pace of the soprano aria "Rejoice greatly" was a bit too ambitious, however, as the otherwise fine Carolyn Sampson shudders rather than sails through the long, fast melismas. Peter Harvey is absolutely superb in his tour de force arias "Why do the nations" and "The trumpet shall sound", and if you're wondering, the "Halleluja" chorus is remarkably effective in Bernius' slightly understated yet rhythmically dynamic rendition.
Happily, no big fuss is made over editions, alternate arias, performing forces, or attempting to reconstruct a particular one of Handel's performances--although just a little information regarding performance choices would have been nice, other than, in tiny print, the notice that Ton Koopman's "new Urtext edition" (published by Carus) was used. It turns out that this edition contains "all the surviving alternative versions of the solo movements", allowing the director to choose whatever combination he wishes. What Bernius has done is to present the arias as we usually hear them--no surprises--which is another good decision if you wish to produce a potential reference recording of this work. Although this isn't it, it's definitely exceptional--and recommendable--for the reasons listed above.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Carolyn Sampson (Soprano),
Daniel Taylor (Countertenor),
Ben Hulett (Tenor),
Peter Harvey (Bass)
Stuttgart Chamber Choir,
Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra
Written: 1741; London, England
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