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
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.