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Handel: Messiah / Higginbottom, AAM, Oxford New College Choir

Release Date: 10/31/2006 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8570131   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Robert BrooksOtta JonesHenry JenkinsonDavid Blackadder,   ... 
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient MusicOxford New College Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 22 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

If Handel were alive today, he'd still be revising Messiah--it's the nature of this remarkable work, and it was the nature of its very practical, theatre-savvy composer. The various "official" performing versions and hybrids, along with alternate arias and added choruses, have given modern choirs a wealth of choices for their own performances, including license to just cobble together a version to suit the needs of the available forces--just as Handel would have done. This recording claims to offer "the only modern account of Handel's unique London performances in April and May 1751, when he used [boy] treble voices for choruses and arias." Conductor Edward Higginbottom can't find an explanation for that Read more decision, but just the same he selected three boys from his excellent choir to help replicate the event. Indeed, of all the British chapel, cathedral, and university-based choirs, Higginbottom's Choir of New College Oxford always has cultivated the most ingratiatingly warm, clear, full-bodied, centered treble tone, complemented by robust basses and rich-colored middle voices--which is why his is the ideal group to bring this particular Messiah setting to disc.

Of course, for the most part, the arias, recits, and choruses are the same here as for any other complete Messiah performance; variations occur in the use of countertenor rather than female alto, and in the several numbers where a treble sings instead of the usual female soprano. And the three trebles who share the work here are fabulous; nothing is lost in expression or technique, and there's something to be said for their pure, completely unmannered style in such hugely familiar music, so often overwrought and excessively ornamented. And speaking of ornaments, Higginbottom doesn't allow the "all-about-me" kind of decoration from his soloists that renders many performances different but ultimately irritating; instead the ornamenting is tasteful and artful.

Higginbottom's command of the orchestra also is impressive; he has a firm grasp of the larger picture of the oratorio, and consequently makes decisions regarding pacing that just "feel" right. It's interesting that among the vast volumes of writing about Messiah, almost no one ever discusses tempo--and yet it's tempo more than anything that determines a successful performance. The current "speed for speed's sake" obsession of some conductors simply ruins choruses such as "And He shall purify", "His yoke is easy", and "All we like sheep", and arias like "Rejoice greatly"--but here we are treated to mostly sensible (but certainly not slow!) tempos that properly capture the essential rhythmic and melodic--and textual--aspects of a given movement (except for Higginbottom's insanely fast "All we like sheep", which the choir almost pulls off!). The lively movements dance; the more reflective and solemn ones are appropriately weighty or delicate as required. In other words, this is a very intelligent, articulate, and consummately musical--as well as entertaining--Messiah.

The choir is as good as any you'll hear in this music, and the soloists--none of them big names, but all experts in this repertoire--couldn't be more ideally chosen. There are many scintillating moments--including the chorus "For unto us a Child is born", which has never been more excitingly rendered on a recording (at least among the two-dozen-plus sets in my collection)--and there are some occasions, the "Hallelujah" chorus for one, where the choir is covered just a little more than we'd like by the exuberant orchestra.

Being a very critical Messiah observer, I was pleasantly surprised by this "treble"-voice version. In fact, along with the reference recordings above, it's becoming one of my favorites, simply because it renders this beloved and time-worn work with respect for its innate structural and expositional integrity--no fancy, quirky self-indulgences, no artificial additives, just pure, unprocessed, organic Handel. A pleasure!
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Performer:  Robert Brooks (Treble), Otta Jones (Treble), Henry Jenkinson (Treble),
David Blackadder (Trumpet), Toby Spence (Tenor), Iestyn Davies (Countertenor),
Eamonn Dougan (Bass)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Academy of Ancient Music,  Oxford New College Choir
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741; London, England 
Venue:  St John's, Smith Square, London, England 
Length: 142 Minutes 19 Secs. 
Language: English 
Notes: Version: 1751
St John's, Smith Square, London, England (01/03/2006 - 01/08/2006) 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  3 Customer Reviews )
 Crackerjack Messiah  April 8, 2020 By Eric Bergerud (Albany, CA) See All My Reviews "All you have to know about this splendid Messiah is that Higginbottem deploys a small army of trebels - that makes a huge difference and I don't doubt the historical accuracy. Now that Harnoncourt and Leonhardt are ancient history, I don't think anyone handles boys better than Higginbottem. They're not female sopranos, but when they work, the sound is glorious. And here they sing not only in the chorus but also some solos. This performance to my ears compares with Christopher Hogwood's - and that's good. I wish I got paid or listening to the Messiah, but I've heard almost all of the major renditions. The work is a masterpiece so any good ensemble can make it sound splendid. (The work also does not tax the vocal talent of the singers the way a Bach Passion does - but so what. Can you imagine a "sing along" Matthew Passion?) But the Messiah is so great that every serious pair of ears requires at least two versions. Find a good "Historically Informed" version like this one (the price is good too.) Then paid it up with Thomas Beecham's venerable recording from c. 1960 which has a huge choir, modern instruments (there are even bells) and more energy than a bullet train. The first style is lovely music and allows you to appreciate the depth of the music. Beecham's rendition is more like a revelation than a concert. It will make a Christian out of anyone for a minute, or at least remind you that Beecham played for a much better world. You need them both." Report Abuse
 I'm not qualified to do this. February 2, 2016 By Peter S. See All My Reviews "I have only listened to it once. I like it very much; it seems to me 'just right'. The choir is very good and soloists well chosen. I look forward to many more hearings." Report Abuse
 Spine Tingling, Again and Again August 27, 2015 By Jeffrey C. (Liberty Lake, WA) See All My Reviews "This is a powerful recording. The solos are strong, the orchestra is top-notch, and the choir is simply angelic. I cherish this CD." Report Abuse
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