Handel: Messiah / Pinnock, Auger, Von Otter, Chance, Crook

Release Date: 10/25/1990
Catalog Number: 4236302
Conductor: Trevor Pinnock
Orchestra/Ensemble: English Concert, English Concert Choir
Number of Discs: 2

Physical Format:

CD
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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pinnock never makes you feel that period performance lacks necessary weight, stirring the blood in a way that even Sir Malcolm Sargent would have envied in the old days.

How authentic is authentic? Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert here add to the already long list of Messiah recordings one which, while using period instruments, is guaranteed to appeal very widely to traditional lovers of Handel's masterpiece, who might as a rule opt for a performance using modern instruments. That is true to a degree with the three other period-instrument versions I have listed, but even more completely, I feel, Pinnock gets the best of both worlds.

I remember discussing Messiah with a colleague whom I greatly respect, a specialist in early performance practice, who was strongly resisting both the Gardiner (Philips) and Christophers (Hyperion) versions as being essentially modern performances dressed up with period instruments. I fear he will say much the same of this. On the other hand the very elements which may distress the scholars—speeds often easier than we have come to expect of period performance and very slow indeed for a dedicated performance of "He was despised"—will almost certainly add to the attractions for those less committed, whether traditionalists, modernists or newly converted period-performance enthusiasts.

As it happened, the records arrived within days of my hearing Pinnock and substantially the same performers as here, giving Messiah in the University Church in Salzburg. As I have reported last month (page 534), it was one of the great successes of this year's Festival, and what was never in doubt was the intensity of communication, the drama, the excitement, the grandeur as well as the 'dedication', of which the specialists are suspicious on historical grounds. The impact was all the greater with listeners who do not have Messiah presented as often as in English-speaking countries.

The record re-creates very much what I heard in the University Church, with merits that make it stand out even among the highly enjoyable sets listed. One of the most distinctive points is that Pinnock, even more than his rivals, brings out the impact of timpani and trumpets, above all in the "Hallelujah" and "Amen" choruses. In that he stirs the blood in a way that even Sir Malcolm Sargent would have envied in the old days, while in true period-performance fashion reminding me of Roger Norrington in his use of trumpet and timpani in Beethoven with his London Classical Players. With small timpani, dry and crisp in impact, the martial overtones are emphasized, and Robert Howes, the timpanist, reinforces that by adding on the first beat of the final -cadences of those two choruses a most convincing `rataplan' of an ornament, very effectively leading to more ornamentation of the bare timpani part in the score.

Another distinctive point in relation to latterday Messiah recordings, is that a genuine, dark, firm, bass soloist has been chosen, John Tomlinson. When he sang the Salzburg performance, he was in the middle of his stint as the young Wotan in the new Bayreuth Ring cycle, but he is just as ripely resonant here. He has already shown what a fine Handelian he is on record in Gardiner's Archiv version of Hercules and Richard Hickox's EMI set of Alcina. Here it is thrilling to have "The people that walked in darkness", "Behold I tell you a mystery" and "The trumpet shall sound" done not just with clarity and power but with an almost operatic panache.

Traditionalists who lament the lack of dark bass tone and the predominance of baritonal shades in Handel today will, I hope, raise a cheer, and if it comes to authenticity, Handel must surely have been thinking of just such a voice, rather than anything thinner or more discreet. It is true that Tomlinson attacks one or two salient notes from below—exceptionally for him—but in that I imagine he was aiming to make the results even more sepulchral in the first two numbers I mention and more stentorian in the last. It is satisfying too to have a bass who, as well as singing with power, can enunciate the elaborate divisions so cleanly. It is typical of Pinnock's dramatic use of colour within a period-performance framework that the pivoting semiquavers of the Accompagnato of "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth", leading to "The people that walked in darkness" are made to sound eeriely impressionistic at a hushed pianissimo. That contradicts both Watkins Shaw and John Tobin, who give the markingforte, where the traditional Prout edition has piano. Whatever Pinnock's justification, the result is wonderfully atmospheric.

Not only Tomlinson but Arleen Auger too v., I delight listeners of all Handelian persuasions. To my ear this is the sweetest, most ravishing soprano sound on any of the current versions, and the warmth of expressiveness, whether strictly authentic or not, brings many of the most memorable moments in the whole performance. Try the close of "I know that my Redeemer liveth", where the dramatic contrasts of dynamic are extreme and masterfully controlled, without a hint of sentimentality. Lynne Dawson on the Hyperion set may produce sounds just as sweet and more girlish, but Auger has an extra poise and finesse to have one catching the breath even more. "Rejoice greatly", incidentally, comes in the usual 4/4 version, not the 12/8 variant preferred by Gardiner, Christophers and others.

The male alto, Michael Chance, also outshines his direct rivals in artistry and beauty of tone, but he is given only a proportion of the alto numbers, including -But who may abide" and "Thou art gone up on high". The majority are given to Anne Sofie von Otter. Hers is another beautiful voice, finely controlled. She sustains the very slow speed for "He was despised" superbly, and the sparing use of vibrato brings her nearer to the vocal approach adopted by Christopher Hogwood in his Oiseau-Lyre set, where I find several of the soloists too booty for comfort. Von Otter avoids that, but the voice sometimes sits close to the flat side of the note. The tenor, Howard Crook, sings freshly and cleanly, but with a hint of vibrato exaggerated by the microphones at times he cannot quite match Anthony Rolfe Johnson on the Gardiner set or Maldwyn Davies on the Christophers.

The contrast of approach between the four sets is established in the slow introduction to the Overture. Hogwood is brisk, tough and direct; Christophers is slacker than the others, while Gardiner adopts a very clipped staccato manner in an acoustic rather drier. Pinnock, while demonstrating the benefits in clarity of period performance, is less clipped, easier, even genial in a pomposo manner that makes the opening a degree more imposing. The contrasts throughout the set follow very much that pattern, with Pinnock never making you feel that period performance lacks necessary weight.

Though in the fast choruses Pinnock regularly adopts the light, resilient manner that we have come to expect, he never takes speeds to extremes as Gardiner sometimes does (as in "His yoke is easy"), and the results never sound breathless. Beautifully pointed as Gardiner's staccato style is, he sounds a little mannered next to Pinnock. Pinnock gains over Christophers in the extra body of a choir of 32 voices (10.7.7.8), and the cries of "Wonderful!" in "For unto us a Child is born" have just as much impact as in Hogwood's splendid account with the Christ Church Choir and their bright-toned trebles. When it comes to the grandeur of "Hallelujah" or the "Amen" chorus, The English Concert Choir have an advantage even over Christ Church.

It helps that the Archiv recording is the finest yet, with just as much bloom as on Hogwood's atmospheric analogue recording and with inner clarity never making textures sound thin or overanalytical. This new Pinnock set would now be my own first choice for Messiah, particularly when it takes only two discs as against the three of Hogwood and Gardiner. But I must emphasize how enjoyable and illuminating I still find the others listed, not to mention several of the versions using modern instruments. By any reckoning this remains one of the most inexhaustible of all musical masterpieces.

-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [11/1988]
Works on This Recording
1. Messiah, HWV 56 by George Frideric Handel
Performer: Arleen Augér (Soprano), Howard Crook (Tenor), Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), John Tomlinson (Bass Baritone), Michael Chance (Countertenor)
Conductor: Trevor Pinnock
Orchestra/Ensemble: English Concert Choir, English Concert
Period: Baroque
Written: 1741 ; London, England
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