Holiday 2017 I – Georg Frederic Handel’s "Messiah"

C. Michael Bailey By

Sign in to view read count
A banner year for Handel's warhourse.

Charlesworth, Rupert; Wolf, Andreas; Niquet, Hervé; Concert Spirituel Chorus; Pichanick, Anthea; Piau, Sandrine; Concert Spirituel Orchestra; Katherine Watson
Messiah. HWV 56 (1754 Version)
Alpha Records

The past several years has seen provocative French productions of Handel's flagship Messiah. These include Benoit Haller's spare but taut 2013 account with La Chapelle Rhenane on K617 Records and Emmanuelle Haim's and Le Concert d'Astrée, Choeur et Orchestre supreme 2014 performance (Erato). Unlike the English (Gardiner, Pinnock, and Norrington) and any number of the modern instrument performances, these French artists are no longer afraid of performing Messiah "without touching anything," in the words of Hervé Niquet in the impressive book accompanying the recording. Niquet claims to direct this performance as a sacred opera as opposed to an oratorio. What this tells my ears is that an acute attention to dynamics is in order. The famous "Hallelujah" chorus boasts a certain Tao compared to the prim, missionary readings of the English. This is not a Messiah for purists, it is one for progressive dreamers.

Niquet professeshis love for Sir Christopher Hogwood's 1980 historically-informed Messiah. The conductor adopts Hogwood's focus on the 1754 Foundling Hospital edition, featuring an SSATB soloist lineup rather than the typical SATB front from other editions. Hogwood's recording was a major game-changer in classical music, establishing the groundwork for the subsequent period-instrument, historically-informed performance movement. Niquet makes his case, almost 40 years later, for the next phase of period instrument considerations. All soloists are creamy with a shot of brandy, soothing as warranted and sharp when necessary. This old warhorse of a composition still holds its surprises, which is why it remains a staple of the holiday repertoire.

Carolyn Simpson, Daniel Taylor, Benjamin Hulett, Peter Harvey, Kammershor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius
Carus Verlag

I am not sure that performances of Handel's Messiah are not unlike pizza and sex in the respect that even the worst is still pretty good. Post modernity is plagued with an excess of media, so much so that even the most excellent is marginalized in an ocean of releases. Frieder Bernius' reading of the oratorio, with the Kammershor and Barockorchester Stuttgart is a case in point. This is an excellent band with a capable conductor, addressing a new edition (Ton Koopman's "new Urtext edition" (also published by the performance label, Carus)). With the exception of a couple of excessive missteps, like tenor Benjamin Hulett's self-indulgent first syllable on "Comfort..." in the fifth bar of his opening vocal, but on the whole, this is a very good performance. Founded in 1985, the Kammershor, Barockorchester Stuttgart and a period instrument band bent on a modern interpretation of historically-informed performance. While the heyday of the period-instrument/performance movement is well past, the approach has become a mainstay of 21st Century recording, all to our benefit.

Erin Wall, Elizabeth DeShong, Andrew Staples, John Relyea, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis

Talk about a Messiah getting some bad press! Sir Andrew Davis' 2010 overhaul of the oratorio met with, at best mixed reviews, and way too many comparisons to Sir Thomas Beecham and Eugene Goossens' 1959 whorehouse of a performance edition. I believe that Davis stopped well short of that excess and while I will allow that purists will fuss over Davis' approach, the performance is brightly colored and refreshed by his tinkering. The thing about this Messiah is how different it sounds while still remaining essentially the same as always. For the average holiday listener, Davis' vision is one that is essentially reverent and loyal to Handel while goosing the old Saxon just enough to make him squeak a little. The period instrument/historically-informed performances of the baroque catalog has led us to an emphasis on original orchestration and the use of smaller bands and choruses. Yet after so many outstanding period-instrument recordings, this studied approach has gone from youthful exuberance into stalled orthodoxy, making a recording like Davis' strangely appealing as a defiantly retrograde interpretation, using a modern symphony orchestra, operatic voices and massed choir. This is not unlike the cultural spin cycle that occurs every 20 years, where the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s were re-celebrated in the '80s, '90s, '00s, and '10s, respectively. What once was old is new again, and ain't that grand!

Hanna Herfurtner Gaia Petrone, Michael Schade, Christian Immler, Salburger Bachhor, Bach Consort Wein, Ruben Dubrosky

This present production of Messiah, directed by Ruben Dubrovsky atht he helm of the Bach Consort Wien and Salzburger Bachchor, is a solid, if not journeyman reading of the oratorio. The present recording serves as the soundtrack to an accompanying Blu-Ray and DVD, documenting joyful exhibition within a warm and natural environment. The Bach Consort Wien performs with precisely-gauged contrasts and emotional vim. This performance boasts none of the steely baroque academics here -Dubrovsky is scintillating in his direction—spirited and well-defined. The soloists are all fine and well-matched with the Slazburger Bachchor, which is assertive and sharp in their collective conviction. The sonics, while warm and inviting, are a bit boggy resulting from the single-take live recording, which collects surrounding noise. That said, the performance is honest and well intentioned. How can any performance of Messiah be really bad?

Midori Sukuki, Yoshikazu Mela, John Elwes, David Thomas, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki

Originally released in 1997, Masaaki and the Bach Collegium Japan's rendering of Messiah (BIS Records) was universally praised for its precise performance and sonic perfection. Maestro Suzuki recorded this during his well-considered Bach Cantata cycle (that would have been better considered had it not competed with John Eliot Gardiner's superb Pilgrimage). This amply prepared Suzuki's baroque chops for Handel's masterpiece. Since the initial release, Suzuki's Messiah has been remastered in 2012 and this remastering re-released in 2017. I cannot think of a better performance to be treated thusly. The soloists, in particular, alto Yoshikazu Mera, perform flawlessly, in deference to British music press criticism of poor English pronunciation by the largely Japanese chorus. Suzuki's performance is base on the 1753 Covet Garden presentation beneath Handel's baton using a SATB solo front. This remains a performance to beat among a legion of them.

Critic's Note: Anno Domini 2017, marks the 100th Anniversary of recorded jazz, deftly noted by the release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's shellac "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step (A)/Livery Stable Blues (B)," Victor 18255, recorded February 26, 1917 and released March 7, 1917. Just for perspective, in 1917, my father was 18 months old and my mother was yet to be born for two years. It is also the twentieth anniversary of me writing for All About Jazz. The first recording I reviewed for the magazine was Art Pepper's San Francisco Samba (Contemporary, 1997), published December 1, 1997. I am using this article as part of a series noting my twentieth anniversary with the magazine and paying special tribute to my fellow writers at All About Jazz and Publisher Michael Ricci.



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.