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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Judith Raskin, soprano
Florence Kopleff, contralto
Richard Lewis, tenor
Thomas Paul, bass
Robert Conant, harpsichord
Robert Arnold, organ
James Smith, solo trumpet
The Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra/Robert Shaw
Recorded June 13-20, 1966 in Webster Hall, New York City. ADD
BMG-RCA 82876 62317 2 [74:12 + 74:47]


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The blurb on the back cover of the jewel box for this set reads as follows: "First CD release of the Grammy winning recording! The Robert Shaw Chorale at the peak of their [sic] popularity- a Messiah for the ages." Yawn.

The cult of Robert Shaw is still alive and well amongst many choral musicians in the United States, with disciples all over the country pausing to bow east at the very mention of the late maestro’s name. Really though, it is time to dispel a bit of the Shaw myth, and this "Messiah for the ages" is as good a place as any to begin.

This set was heralded in its day as ground-breaking for its attention to baroque performance practice, but we have come quite a long way since 1966.

Perhaps the best way to review this recording is to break it down into its individual parts, discussing the merits and shortcomings of each. Let us begin with the soloists.

As the quality of voices goes, there is nothing about which to complain with any of these performers. Each is possessed of a warm, rich and agile voice, and each sings with conviction and sincerity. Tenor Richard Lewis is perhaps the least appealing of all in that he eschews practically all ornamentation and brings off a rather utilitarian performance at best. Soprano Judith Raskin is prone to a bit too much Verdian scooping and sliding, but sings with gusto and ease, and with fine enunciation. The two standouts are the lower voices, contralto Florence Kopleff and bass Thomas Paul. Both sing with a rich full timbre and are most sensitive to the texts that they declaim. They dispense with superficial ‘singerisms’ and deliver their arias and recitatives with clarity and conviction that is most convincing indeed.

As for Mr. Shaw and his chorale, here is where the myth-busting begins. Always a stickler for rhythmic integrity, Mr. Shaw produced choruses that had flawless enunciation and peerless rhythmic drive and energy. There is nary a cut-off out of place and every word is distinct and clear. Yet, there is never a sense of line in this performance and the blend of the voices is less than stellar. Individuals stick out and the tone is at best professional, at worst, strident, unvaried and colorless. Mr. Shaw misses the boat on some interpretational issues as well, negating the French Overture style in the opening sinfonia, adding it in to places that it does not belong, as in the opening chorus of part two, "Behold the Lamb of God."

As for the orchestra, they play in a professional yet perfunctory manner, and Robert Conant’s incessant arpeggiations at the harpsichord become nauseous very quickly.

If one were seeking an end-all performance of this great work, then I would advise a look at Paul MacCreesh’s recent recording for Arkiv. Now that is a Messiah for you. Program notes are fine, sound quality is a bit boxy for these ears. If you are a Shaw fanatic, then you might wish to add this one to your shelf, otherwise, pass, and thank Mr. Shaw in your bedtime prayers for moving the choral art along toward the high standards that we enjoy today.

Kevin Sutton


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