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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Messiah

Margaret Price (soprano)
Yvonne Minton (contralto)
Alexander Young (tenor)
Justino Diaz (bass)
Amor Artis Chorale
English Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Somary
Recorded 1971 (originally issued on Vanguard)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-11/12 [74.56+72.38]



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Despite its popularity, ‘Messiah’ is atypical of Handel’s oratorios. ‘Messiah’ was written at a time when he was producing a masterly sequence of dramatic oratorios which are nearly stage works. But, strictly, it has no dramatic structure (though it does have drama). Instead, Jennens’ fine assemble of scriptural texts explores a series of themes relating to the Messiah. But the circumstances surrounding its creation were unusual as well. Written for Handel’s trip to Dublin, the initial version was sketched out for four unknown soloists, hence the soprano, alto, tenor, bass line-up. Handel’s usual method was to write for the soloists that he knew he would be likely to have available for the forthcoming season. But the Dublin trip was different, Handel was taking a welcome respite from problems in London, there were even rumours in the press that he was going to quit London. So he took with him a work suitable for a group of, as yet, unspecified soloists and in a dramatic form that was unusual. Though a success in Dublin, when the work finally reached London it was not a great success. The scriptural nature of the text disturbed some people. And Jennens was never completely reconciled to it. Amazingly, in the light of the work’s subsequent popularity, he considered some of the music did not rise to the sublimity of the text.

The popularity of ‘Messiah’ (and the development of Handel’s real popularity late on in his career in London), seems to have developed from the annual performances that he instituted in aid of the foundling Hospital. Popular from their very outset, these annual commemorations would lead to the mammoth Handel centenary commemoration and to the domination of ‘Messiah’ over the rest of Handel’s output during the 19th and 20th centuries.

There are, needless to say, many versions of ‘Messiah’ but the one recorded here is the traditional one, effectively based on the later performances from Handel’s career, but ignoring the fascinating variants that Handel created when he had both a castrato and a contralto available. (Interestingly, Handel never replaced the contralto with an alto castrato. If he had both available, then the castrato got other material. Such items as ‘He was despised’ were always sung by a female contralto).

The performance recorded here is in many ways traditional, large forces play at slowish speeds. But Somary’s speeds, though on the moderate side, are generally acceptable and sometimes they are ideal. The Amor Artis Chorale give us a very big sound, but manage to sing with shape and style and most importantly, with a springy rhythmic bounce. They make a good choral society sound, with a firm alto line. The tenors are quite strong, but they can sound a little strained in the higher lying passages. The choir’s sound has rather more vibrato than would be used in Handel nowadays. Their passage-work is generally adequate, sometimes more so, but Somary’s rather moderate speeds do help. I would prefer much more continuo in the concerted passages, but this is a matter of taste. The English Chamber Orchestra play in a very stylish manner, indeed until the development of period instrument performers the ECO’s Handel was the very epitome of style, and indeed remains so. To enhance this, Somary has an attractive quartet of soloists who come from a generation where young singers still cut their teeth on innumerable performances of ‘Messiah’ and all four of them ornament beautifully. Something, that I must confess, rather surprised me.

In the right hands the soprano’s opening recitatives can be one of the high points of ‘Messiah’ and Margaret Price gives a ravishing account of them. Somary’s speeds here are ideal and this continues into the ‘Glory to God’ chorus. Price and Somary also give a fine account of ‘Rejoice Greatly’, sung in the familiar common time version. Her phrasing is a times rather romantic rather than baroque, but all of her solos are a joy to listen to. I was particularly taken with her lovely rendition of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, notable for beauty of tone and profoundly moving.

Yvonne Minton is similarly impressive, her opening recitative ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive’ is sung with a creamy tone and a shapely line. And this high standard continues into the following aria. ‘He was despised’ is sung at a surprisingly modern speed it is finely done but does not quite raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Tenor, Alexander Young, opens the work with a recitative characterised by great beauty of tone and a lovely shape, but Somary’s accompaniment is rather too slow for my taste. I felt that the recording might have caught him slightly too late (he was over 50 when it was made) as a suspicion of a beat creeps into his voice when it is under pressure or when the part goes low. Notwithstanding this, his attention to the words is matchless, so that the sequence of recitatives and arias in part two make fine listening.

The Bass, Justino Diaz, is the most variable of the soloists. His English is good, but he does sing with a distinct accent. His opening recitative, rather surprisingly, sounded a little low for him. And in other places his tone can lack focus. Similarly his passage-work is a little variable, often lacking a sense of shape and purpose. This is especially a shame as he gets the whole of the ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts’ –‘ But who may abide’ – ‘For he is like the refiners fire’ sequence and I have heard many basses make far more of this opportunity. But his recitative, ‘For Behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ is wonderfully atmospheric. By the time we reach, ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ he is on form and gives a strong account of the aria, only marred by a tendency to shout the top notes.

Rather too many of the choruses are slower than I would like, particularly in part 1. But worse than the slowness, is the sense of plodding solidity. The choir can sing in a lively, shapely manner (as in ‘Glory to God’), but their opening chorus, ‘And the glory of the lord’ is marred by this lack of life and sense of purpose. In other places, such as ‘And he shall purify’, the passage work contains too many intrusive aitches for comfort. But in complete contrast, ‘For unto us a child is born’ is sung at a good speed, with fine passage-work which has a wonderful sense of purpose and direction. In parts 2 and 3 I found less to worry about, but never felt that the choral singing was more than adequate. In a number of places, particularly in part 2, there was a lack of sustained singing, the sense of 4 individual sustained lines is lost. And this is very important in Handel’s more serious choruses.

On repeated listening to this recording, I rather warmed to it and began to relax a little when the chorus started singing. It does have some lovely solo work, but really if you are looking for a modern instrument version of ‘Messiah’, do consider Colin Davis or Charles Mackerras. Davis, recorded in the 1960s, has the benefit of the LSO and the London Symphony Chorus though the style can seem a little old fashioned. Mackerras, conducting the Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra, produced a recording which some commentators feel has worn very well.

Robert Hugill



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