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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (1742)
Judith Raskin (soprano)
Florence Kopleff (contralto)
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Thomas Paul (bass)
Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra/Robert Shaw
rec. Webster Hall, New York City, June 1966
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-62317-2 [74:12 + 74:47]

Those of us of a certain age remember when this recording, along with the roughly contemporaneous productions by Colin Davis (Philips) and Charles Mackerras (EMI), was hailed for breaking new ground in Messiah performance practice. These conductors were not the first moderns to use Handel's original orchestration: Boult and Klemperer made a point of doing so in their recordings, for Decca and EMI respectively. But Shaw, Davis, and Mackerras scored points by restoring Handel's original sense of scale, leading chamber-sized orchestras and choirs rather than the symphonic string bodies preferred by the older generation. Their brisker pacing and rhythmic snap, stressing the score's lightness and transparency, and the use of ornaments and appoggiaturas, underlining similarities to the composer's secular operatic style, also felt more recognizably Handelian than did the ponderous, large-scale "devotional" approach of yore.
Of course, while this way of playing Messiah fits the musicologists' prescriptions, active musicians still found it very new; and on this recording Shaw begins tentatively, as if he's not quite convinced. The overture's straight (undoubled) dotting sits uneasily on a chamber orchestra, which isn't equipped to produce the weight suggested by this rhythm. Richard Lewis's tight, gummy enunciation in the first few numbers hasn't held up terribly well, and his Ev'ry valley is conservatively paced. So is The people that walked in darkness, which here sounds interminable.
But the conductor relaxes into his performance as it progresses, with his treatment of detail reflecting the music's mood. Launching But who may abide immediately from Thus saith the Lord, attacca, is a nice touch - marred somewhat by the audible splice at Florence Kopleff's entry; a similar direct connection between Rejoice greatly and Then shall the eyes maintains the dramatic momentum. Of course, the conductor is most comfortable in the choral movements. Behold the Lamb of God, its dotted rhythms played straight as in the overture, better conveys the intended grandeur. Conversely, double-dotting in the meditative coda of All we like sheep and in Let all the angels of God gives each number just the right sort of lift. The bracing pace of the more dramatic choruses, like He trusted in God, adds a riveting edge recalling the crowd choruses in the Bach Passions. If a quick, almost casual Hallelujah! lacks majesty, a similarly paced Amen chorus makes for a jubilant finish.
The chorus is presumably an ad hoc group rather than a standing ensemble; its sound, nonetheless, is beautifully blended, the runs expert and accurate. Choral singers will recognize the use of semi-aspirated articulation; everyone else can simply admire the clarity. Nor do the chorus serve up mere unvaried tonal beauty: Shaw takes care to shape the lines of All we like sheep, for example, as one rarely hears. If the conductor's handling of the orchestra occasionally seems less assured - Shaw came to orchestral technique relatively late in the game - the touch of vibrato on the low strings still reminds us, in an age where "period" practitioners have taken over this repertoire, how nice it is to hear modern instruments play the music.
Shaw makes some "different" textual choices - different, that is, from the Schirmer vocal score familiar to generations of amateur choristers. He breaks up Part II's long tenor sequence between tenor (Thy rebuke and Behold, and see) and soprano (He was cut off and But Thou didst not leave), as per Handel's own practice, providing some needed variety. On the other hand, I've never understood the point of the short version of the Pifa - which hardly has sufficient time to set the pastoral mood - and this Why do the nations, with a recitative replacing two-thirds of the aria (including the entire B section), sounds abruptly truncated.
Among the soloists, Kopleff's performance offers the most pleasure. She isn't the traditional Earth-mother, Clara Butt-type alto: her bright, straightish tone sometimes suggests a counter-tenor. But she sings firmly and evenly, relishing her cadenzas and embellishments, even making the normally stodgy Thou art gone up on high sound buoyant and airborne. Lewis, my reservations notwithstanding, is musical and authoritative, sensitively filling in the open intervals of Behold, and see. Judith Raskin disappoints. She sounds ill at ease in Rejoice greatly - odd, given her deft Exsultate, jubilate on Sony - and nags below pitch in How beautiful are the feet; her I know that my Redeemer liveth rarely floats. Her best moments, unexpectedly, are in But Thou didst not leave - normally taken by the tenor! - which she sings with weight and feeling. Thomas Paul provides a solid, sonorous bass with somewhat muffled vowels.
Digital processing, alas, spoils the overall effect - not because the processing is bad, but because it exposes flaws passed and shortcuts taken in the original production. Sonic inconsistencies - similar to those on other CD reissues of 1960s RCA recordings - are especially noticeable in the arias. As early as Ev'ry valley, the focus on Lewis's voice, and on the orchestral image, turns clearer and fuzzier from bar to bar. The effect is what you might get if you patched the numbers together from short bits of tape that deteriorated at different rates. And it took the engineers a while to figure out how to record the chorus, forwardly balanced in And the glory of the Lord, and apparently crammed into a space about two feet deep. Fortunately, a more natural perspective in the subsequent numbers allows a full appreciation of Shaw's distinctive choral blend.
This is a performance that deserves a hearing and rewards study. But it's probably not the performance to have if you're having only one. For that, I'd still suggest the Colin Davis version I cited earlier, available as a Philips Duo. Avoid his Bavarian Radio remake, which ossifies the same musical gestures and suffers Hanna Schwarz's dispiriting alto.
If, unlike me, you must have period instruments, Christopher Hogwood on L'Oiseau-Lyre offers Emma Kirkby's gripping performance - I am not joking - of the Guadagni arias in the soprano transpositions.
Stephen Francis Vasta



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