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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Georg Friedrich HAENDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah
Lynne Dawson, Nicole Heaston, soprano
Magdalena Kozena, mezzo-soprano
Charlotte Hellekant, contralto
Brian Asawa, countertenor
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
Russell Smythe, baritone
Brian Bannatyne-Scott, bass
Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
Rec: October 1997, Salle Debussy, Opera Bastille, Paris.
ARCHIV 471 341-2 [123.12]


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According to the liner notes with this recording, Marc Minkowski was involved in a film by William Klein about Messiah. This was filmed in a wide variety of places around the world. He says that this recording is the "soundtrack" to the film, adding, "…it’s not like the Messiah we’d prepared in concert or the one we would have recorded in a studio." I must admit, since it was recorded in a studio, I remain a bit perplexed. In any case, this is the first recording of Messiah by a conductor who has certainly left his mark on the Handelian discography, with his Ariodante, among others.

The sound of this recording is quite a conundrum. The instruments, especially when playing purely instrumental passages, such as the opening Sinfony, sound flat and shallow. Yet the voices, both the soloist and choir, are vibrant. The 37-member choir is rich and powerful without being overpowering, and is certainly one of the highlights of this recording. It is well-miked, and is spread across the soundscape, providing a fine presence. But the overall dynamics are annoying. At times, the instruments play softly, and, when the chorus sings, it is very loud. It is hard to adjust the volume to listen to the entire work at one set volume.

One may wonder about the number of soloists used for this recording. In spite of Magdalena Kozena’s fine voice, was it really necessary to include her for just one aria in this recording? Is this merely for marketing reasons, to put her name on the cover of the CD? The same can be said for the use of two sopranos, or of both a contralto and countertenor, especially since Kozena, a mezzo-soprano, sings an alto aria. The same applies to Charlotte Hellekant, who sings just one aria, Are you despised, the longest, and one of the finest arias in Messiah. Unfortunately, she brings nothing to this aria, and her overuse of vibrato greatly mars her otherwise attractive, dark voice. It is nearly impossible to understand what she is singing, because of her constant chirping vibrato.

Soprano Nicole Heaston certainly stands out as having one of the finest voices on this recording. Unadorned by excessive vibrato, she shines in the duet with countertenor Brian Asawa, He shall feed his flock. Her voice is pure and rich with emotion, and her subtle use of vibrato should have been a model for some of the other singers in this recording - she uses it as an ornament, as it should be used. Asawa is also excellent, both in this duet and in his other appearances.

Tenor John Mark Ainsley is brilliant, with a fine voice and excellent tone, both in the recitatives and arias. Ainsley and Heaston are the finest soloists on this recording. The several arias taken by Ainsley in Part 2 of the oratorio are outstanding.

This recording of Messiah features a strong and sensitive choir, but there are too many weak points for it to deserve a top recommendation. The strangeness of using certain soloists for just one aria, as what is presumably a marketing hook, the unconvincing sound of the orchestra, and the fact that some of the soloists are not up to par detracts from its strong points. But the choir is good, and the final chorus is bubbles over with energy.

Kirk McElhearn


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