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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Those of us of a certain age remember when this recording, along with the roughly contemporaneous productions by Colin Davis (Philips) and Charles Mackerras (EMI), was hailed for breaking new ground in Messiah performance practice. These conductors were not the first moderns to use Handel's original orchestration: Boult and Klemperer made a point of doing so in their recordings, for Decca and EMI respectively. But Shaw, Davis, and Mackerras scored points by restoring Handel's original sense of scale, leading chamber-sized orchestras and choirs rather than the symphonic string bodies preferred by the older generation. Their brisker pacing and rhythmic snap, stressing the score's lightness and transparency, and the use of ornaments and
appoggiaturas, underlining similarities to the composer's secular operatic style, also felt more recognizably Handelian than did the ponderous, large-scale "devotional" approach of yore.
Of course, while this way of playing Messiah fits the musicologists' prescriptions, active musicians still found it very new; and on this recording Shaw begins tentatively, as if he's not quite convinced. The overture's straight (undoubled) dotting sits uneasily on a chamber orchestra, which isn't equipped to produce the weight suggested by this rhythm. Richard Lewis's tight, gummy enunciation in the first few numbers hasn't held up terribly well, and his Ev'ry valley is conservatively paced. So is The people that walked in darkness, which here sounds interminable.
But the conductor relaxes into his performance as it progresses, with his treatment of detail reflecting the music's mood. Launching But who may abide immediately from Thus saith the Lord, attacca, is a nice touch -marred somewhat by the audible splice at Florence Kopleff's entry; a similar direct connection between Rejoice greatly and Then shall the eyes maintains the dramatic momentum. Of course, the conductor is most comfortable in the choral movements. Behold the Lamb of God, its dotted rhythms played straight as in the overture, better conveys the intended grandeur. Conversely, double-dotting in the meditative coda of All we like sheep and in Let all the angels of God gives each number just the right sort of lift. The bracing pace of the more dramatic choruses, like He trusted in God, adds a riveting edge recalling the crowd choruses in the Bach Passions. If a quick, almost casual Hallelujah! lacks majesty, a similarly paced Amen chorus makes for a jubilant finish.
The chorus is presumably an ad hoc group rather than a standing ensemble; its sound, nonetheless, is beautifully blended, the runs expert and accurate. Choral singers will recognize the use of semi-aspirated articulation; everyone else can simply admire the clarity. Nor do the chorus serve up mere unvaried tonal beauty: Shaw takes care to shape the lines of All we like sheep, for example, as one rarely hears. If the conductor's handling of the orchestra occasionally seems less assured - Shaw came to orchestral technique relatively late in the game - the touch of vibrato on the low strings still reminds us, in an age where "period" practitioners have taken over this repertoire, how nice it is to hear modern instruments play the music.
Shaw makes some "different" textual choices - different, that is, from the Schirmer vocal score familiar to generations of amateur choristers. He breaks up Part II's long tenor sequence between tenor (Thy rebuke and Behold, and see) and soprano (He was cut off and But Thou didst not leave), as per Handel's own practice, providing some needed variety. On the other hand, I've never understood the point of the short version of the Pifa - which hardly has sufficient time to set the pastoral mood - and this Why do the nations, with a recitative replacing two-thirds of the aria (including the entire B section), sounds abruptly truncated.
Among the soloists, Kopleff's performance offers the most pleasure. She isn't the traditional Earth-mother, Clara Butt-type alto: her bright, straightish tone sometimes suggests a counter-tenor. But she sings firmly and evenly, relishing her cadenzas and embellishments, even making the normally stodgy Thou art gone up on high sound buoyant and airborne. Lewis, my reservations notwithstanding, is musical and authoritative, sensitively filling in the open intervals of Behold, and see. Judith Raskin disappoints. She sounds ill at ease in Rejoice greatly - odd, given her deft Exsultate, jubilate on Sony - and nags below pitch in How beautiful are the feet; her I know that my Redeemer liveth rarely floats. Her best moments, unexpectedly, are in But Thou didst not leave - normally taken by the tenor! - which she sings with weight and feeling. Thomas Paul provides a solid, sonorous bass with somewhat muffled vowels.
Digital processing, alas, spoils the overall effect - not because the processing is bad, but because it exposes flaws passed and shortcuts taken in the original production. Sonic inconsistencies - similar to those on other CD reissues of 1960s RCA recordings - are especially noticeable in the arias. As early as Ev'ry valley, the focus on Lewis's voice, and on the orchestral image, turns clearer and fuzzier from bar to bar. The effect is what you might get if you patched the numbers together from short bits of tape that deteriorated at different rates. And it took the engineers a while to figure out how to record the chorus, forwardly balanced in And the glory of the Lord, and apparently crammed into a space about two feet deep. Fortunately, a more natural perspective in the subsequent numbers allows a full appreciation of Shaw's distinctive choral blend.
This is a performance that deserves a hearing and rewards study. But it's probably not the performance to have if you're having only one. For that, I'd still suggest the Colin Davis version I cited earlier, available as a Philips Duo. Avoid his Bavarian Radio remake, which ossifies the same musical gestures and suffers Hanna Schwarz's dispiriting alto.
If, unlike me, you must have period instruments, Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre offers Emma Kirkby's gripping performance - I am not joking - of the Guadagni arias in the soprano transpositions.
-- Stephen Francis Vasta, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Thomas Paul (Bass),
James Smith (Trumpet),
Florence Kopleff (Alto),
Richard Lewis (Tenor),
Judith Raskin (Soprano),
Robert Conant (Harpsichord),
Robert Arnold (Organ)
Robert Shaw Chorale,
Robert Shaw Orchestra
Written: 1741; London, England
Date of Recording: 1966
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Recommended November 7, 2012
By Mark Stenroos (Lake Forest, CA) See All My Reviews
"Judith Raskin, Soprano; Florence Kopleff, Contralto; Richard Lewis, Tenor; Thomas Paul, Bass. The Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra/Robert Shaw, Conductor. Recorded June 13-20, 1966 at Webster Hall, New York City 2 CD: 74'12"; 76'47' Remastered using 24-bit/96-kHz technology Like many, I grew up with this recording in its LP version that was first released in 1966. Back then, it was a BIG deal! In fact, it won the Grammy Award for Best Chorale Recording for 1967. Robert Shaw basically had the Grammy field to himself when it came to choral recordings, winning in 1962 (Bach, Mass in B Minor), 1965 (Britten, A Ceremony of Carols), 1966 (Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms/Poulenc, Gloria) and 1967 (Messiah). Considering the Grammy Award for Best Choral Recording was initiated only in 1961, one can see how Shaw absolutely dominated the US market for choral recordings during the time that his fabled Chorale was in existence. Shaw was RCA Victor's "house" choral conductor for literally decades, and he made the company tons of money over that span, while inspiring a generation or two (or three!) of choral conductors to imagine (mostly erroneously) that they were somehow able to channel Shaw's unique choral techniques and to turn out a product similar to his, without knowing a thing about the way he actually achieved his results. The first thing to realize about the Robert Shaw Chorale is that its membership was very fluid. While Shaw always had a core of professional singers at his disposal for his concerts and recordings, the bulk of the Chorale was - as Maestro Shaw once put it to me - "100 names at the other end of a phone line." These singers - all professionals - had gone through Shaw's rigorous audition ordeal, of course. But once they had been identified as having the sound and the smarts that Shaw desired in his group, they were good to go. Often, inclusion in one of his NYC-based recordings was more a matter of luck than anything else: if you were home when his booking agent called, you were in. Miss that call, and you probably missed the recording sessions as well. So it's all the more remarkable to experience the sound and the musical depth of the Robert Shaw Chorale on this recording. They really are fabulous, and the recording is an honest document of the strengths and shortcomings of the Shaw approach in those days. The truly homogenous sound of the ensemble is as much a testament to the high level of professionalism of the Chorale's individual members as it is to Shaw's overall approach to choral singing. They are of one mind with their conductor, and such unanimity of musical thought actually conspires to produce a freedom and sweep in the music making that is nothing short of awe inducing. Other strengths are Shaw's choice of soloists, who are always acceptable and stylish if not in the "star quality" category. Tenor Richard Lewis was a well-known quantity in his day, but as good as he is here, he is even better in his earlier EMI recordings of "Messiah" led by Sir Malcolm Sargent (1954, 1959). He's also the only solo singer on this recording who could be said to have had a truly international career as a soloist. Mezzo-soprano Florence Kopleff (who passed away in July, 2012) was a Shaw regular whose unique timbre served as the foundation of the alto section sound he elicited from his Chorale. Soprano Judith Raskin had a storied career at both the Met and the NY City Opera, while bass-baritone Thomas Paul was very active on the symphony and opera circuits as a soloist for years. The shortcomings? Well, the orchestra is a pick-up band of NYC-based freelance players. Like the chorus, they are a collection of players made possible by the efforts of a booking agent, rather than being an orchestra that played together throughout the year and built a collective identity as an ensemble. There's nothing wrong with gathering such an ensemble nor of expecting great things from the same IF the conductor in charge is an accomplished orchestral builder/teacher who has a definite idea about what he wants from an orchestra and makes his demands. But orchestral color and nuance was not Shaw's strength at this point in his career. His attention was centered almost exclusively on the choral end of things. That certainly pays dividends in a work like "Messiah," where the choral contribution looms SO large and is SO important, but to imagine that the instrumental playing on this recording approaches the characterful playing one hears elsewhere would be a real stretch. I won't go as far as to say that the level of orchestral nuance is the inverse of what the Chorale achieves, but there are more than a few instances where the vocal contribution so outshines that of the orchestra as to be glaring. The recording has been remastered using 24-bit/96-kHz technology, which is a mixed blessing. Everything is super clear, which is good. On the other hand, there are significant negatives as well - the lack of depth inherent in the original master's close-up perspective is made even more apparent, as is the small size of the instrumental ensemble. One hard and fast rule about ensemble size is that unless you're having only one player to a part, you need at least three players to a part to smooth out variations in intonation and tone color that become very apparent when, say, only two violins play the same part. Get the section size up to 4-6 violins and those problems rather evaporate. I have no idea how many violins are playing on this recording, but there aren't enough for the sound to have the kind of unanimity that we have come to expect these days. These kind of problems were less obvious in the LP era where judicious and tasteful equalization and a more-forgiving playback medium were the norm. Do these problems disqualify this CD reissue from serious consideration? No. But they do knock a star off what would have been a 5-star recommendation, IMHO. Still, it's good that RCA/BMG finally saw fit to release this "Messiah" in its entirety. Truth be told, BMG's treatment of and neglect of their Robert Shaw discography in the CD era has been nothing short of shameful. Of the many complete choral works Shaw recorded over the years for RCA, only this "Messiah" and his earlier-mentioned "Mass in B Minor" have been released on CD. His other Grammy-winning records languish in the vaults, unloved and unissued. Considering the success BMG has had releasing their RCA Living Stereo recordings on CD, one wonders why so many of Shaw's Living Stereo recordings have not only been excluded from inclusion in the Living Stereo series, but excluded from other series as well (his Living Stereo LPs of "Sea Shanties" and "The Stephen Foster Songbook" have been released on LS CD). Other Shaw stereo recordings ignored by RCA include the complete Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes and Vivialdi's Gloria and Kyrie. Beyond his stereo output, Shaw also made a number of great choral records in the mono age, everything from highlights from Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess" with Robert Merrill and Risë Stevens, to a complete Mozart Requiem to Schubert & Poulenc's Masses in G, to a complete Brahms Requiem (with Eleanor Steber as soprano soloist), to a complete Bach St. John Passion (in English - and the first-ever note-complete recording of the work), to both mono and stereo remakes of a few Bach Cantatas, Motets and the Magnificat, not to mention a mono Mass in B Minor from the 78 era that featured the large chorus and orchestra that were the norm at the time. All of these recordings are regularly ignored for reissue on CD by BMG, whose sole interest seems to lie in churning out the fourth, fifth and sixth CD-reissue of the same Reiner, Toscanini and/or Heifetz material they have been releasing on CD over and over again since 1985. Shaw's "Messiah?" Not so much. A few single-disc "highlight" versions featuring the "famous" choruses from "Messiah" in various incarnations over the years, and that's been it. As I said, shameful. Oh well. At least they did get around to releasing this complete, Grammy-wining "Messiah," even if it took them 23 years after the launch of CD to do so. I recommend purchasing this recording before BMG/Sony decides to delete it from their catalog."