A real symphonic account which respects Handel's original conception.
Not everyone wants a recording of Messiah performed by
a period instrument group with relatively small forces. I say
that despite the fact that such recordings have become immensely
sophisticated in the last twenty years. However if you want a
modern instrument Messiah then there are a large variety
from which to choose.
Last year the LSO
brought out their recording, on their own LSO Live label,
taken from concerts
conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Davis used
a crack chamber choir, Tenebrae, and a group of soloists at
home in both period and modern performance. Now EMI have re-issued
Sir Andrew Davis's recording of Messiah using Canadian
The recording is
based around the Toronto Mendelssohn choir, a large amateur
chorus, accompanied by the Toronto Symphony. For soloists Andrew
Davis opts for a quartet of distinctly operatic voices, Kathleen
Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler and Samuel Ramey.
The Toronto Symphony
gives a surprisingly crisp account. Granted they phrase it pretty
much like any other classical music, but as a symphony orchestra
you wouldn't expect anything else. There is no element of period
performance practice, but still the sound is sharply defined
and lively with plenty of air between the notes. Despite the
large size of the choir, this is a nimble performance, without
the heaviness that can dog earlier symphonic accounts of Messiah.
In moments like the Pifa the orchestra turn in a performance
of quiet beauty. As usual with symphonic forces, the harpsichord
is rather under-powered – so, in loud orchestral moments it
either disappears or is reduced to meaningless tinkling.
The chorus, though
relatively large, acquit themselves well. There are some moments
when the faster passages sound a little muddy, but nothing serious.
Though the resulting choral tone is no where near as stunning
as that of Tenebrae on the Colin Davis disc, it has the advantage
of the weight and depth that a bigger chorus brings. Luckily
this is achieved without heaviness or ponderousness. In fact,
though the bigger moments are wonderful they don't quite thrill
in the sort of large-scale “bells and whistles” way that can
happen in some older performances. You don't have to be Beecham
to give in to the temptation of turning the Hallelujah Chorus
into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but this is certainly
a temptation Andrew Davis resists.
One of the admirable
things about this recording is the way that Andrew Davis threads
his way neatly and crisply between a period performance and
an overdone, leaden symphonic one. He thus gives us a real symphonic
account of the work, but one which respects Handel's original
The soloists are
impressive in that they all have the capability to sing Handel's
passage-work. Kathleen Battle has a surprisingly rich voice
for a coloratura soprano. With its dark tones and characterful
vibrato, she never lacks interest and her account is well phrased
and highly sophisticated. On the downside she fails to find
the purity needed at the requisite places. Quite simply, whatever
the type of orchestra used, 'And there were shepherds'
demands the pristine tones of an Emma Kirkby, and this Battle
fails to deliver.
I was familiar with
Battle singing Handel, having long had her recording of Semele;
a recording in which I felt that Battle seemed more at home
in the style than here. Perhaps the more operatic nature of
Semele meant that Battle's operatic background made her
has a beautiful warm mezzo voice which I began to appreciate
only after repeated listening. She brings flexibility of line
and nice autumn tones. There are however times when her approach
is just a little too 19th century operatic for my
taste. In He was despised she does not move me as much
as some of the great 20th century mezzo-sopranos
and contraltos, but it is a creditable effort none the less.
John Aler has the
sort of flexible slim-line tenor voice which enables him to
appear in a great variety of recordings. Here he makes a decent
stab at Handel's important tenor solos. In the opening he demonstrates
a neat pliable tone plus an ability to open out at the requisite
Samuel Ramey is
the King on Janet Baker's recording of Ariodante, conducted
by Raymond Leppard. On that recording I found his singing efficient,
but rather boring. His account of the bass solos on this Messiah
has done nothing to change my opinion. His evenness and
control in the passage-work is impressive and, given his attractively
gravelly bass voice, his singing is remarkably clean. But I
want more I'm afraid. In The Trumpet shall sound we just
don't thrill the way we ought to.
In general all four
soloists ornament quite discreetly. Though Battle indulges in
one or two over-the-top flights of fancy and both she and Quivar
give us some octave transpositions, which is certainly a solecism
you buy will depend on your tastes. If you simply want a fine
account on modern instruments, then you need look no further
than Colin Davis and the LSO. If you want a bigger choir and
more operatic soloists, then this Andrew Davis version may appeal,
especially if the soloists themselves are of interest.
Robert Hugill, MusicWeb International