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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Messiah (1742/1750) [146.02]
Kathleen Battle (soprano); Florence Quivar (mezzo); John Aler (tenor); Samuel Ramey (bass)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 22-23 December 1986, The Centre in the Square, Kitchener, Ontario. DDD
[73.02 + 73.00]
Experience Classicsonline

Not everyone wants a recording of Messiah performed by a period instrument group with relatively small forces. I say that despite the fact that such recordings have become immensely sophisticated in the last twenty years. However if you want a modern instrument Messiah then there are a large variety from which to choose.

Last year the LSO brought out their recording, on their own LSO Live label, taken from concerts conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Davis used a crack chamber choir, Tenebrae, and a group of soloists at home in both period and modern performance. Now EMI have re-issued Sir Andrew Davis's recording of Messiah using Canadian forces.

The recording is based around the Toronto Mendelssohn choir, a large amateur chorus, accompanied by the Toronto Symphony. For soloists Andrew Davis opts for a quartet of distinctly operatic voices, Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler and Samuel Ramey.

The Toronto Symphony gives a surprisingly crisp account. Granted they phrase it pretty much like any other classical music, but as a symphony orchestra you wouldn't expect anything else. There is no element of period performance practice, but still the sound is sharply defined and lively with plenty of air between the notes. Despite the large size of the choir, this is a nimble performance, without the heaviness that can dog earlier symphonic accounts of Messiah. In moments like the Pifa the orchestra turn in a performance of quiet beauty. As usual with symphonic forces, the harpsichord is rather under-powered – so, in loud orchestral moments it either disappears or is reduced to meaningless tinkling.

The chorus, though relatively large, acquit themselves well. There are some moments when the faster passages sound a little muddy, but nothing serious. Though the resulting choral tone is no where near as stunning as that of Tenebrae on the Colin Davis disc, it has the advantage of the weight and depth that a bigger chorus brings. Luckily this is achieved without heaviness or ponderousness. In fact, though the bigger moments are wonderful they don't quite thrill in the sort of large-scale “bells and whistles” way that can happen in some older performances. You don't have to be Beecham to give in to the temptation of turning the Hallelujah Chorus into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but this is certainly a temptation Andrew Davis resists.

One of the admirable things about this recording is the way that Andrew Davis threads his way neatly and crisply between a period performance and an overdone, leaden symphonic one. He thus gives us a real symphonic account of the work, but one which respects Handel's original conception.

The soloists are impressive in that they all have the capability to sing Handel's passage-work. Kathleen Battle has a surprisingly rich voice for a coloratura soprano. With its dark tones and characterful vibrato, she never lacks interest and her account is well phrased and highly sophisticated. On the downside she fails to find the purity needed at the requisite places. Quite simply, whatever the type of orchestra used, 'And there were shepherds' demands the pristine tones of an Emma Kirkby, and this Battle fails to deliver.

I was familiar with Battle singing Handel, having long had her recording of Semele; a recording in which I felt that Battle seemed more at home in the style than here. Perhaps the more operatic nature of Semele meant that Battle's operatic background made her more comfortable.

Florence Quivar has a beautiful warm mezzo voice which I began to appreciate only after repeated listening. She brings flexibility of line and nice autumn tones. There are however times when her approach is just a little too 19th century operatic for my taste. In He was despised she does not move me as much as some of the great 20th century mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, but it is a creditable effort none the less.

John Aler has the sort of flexible slim-line tenor voice which enables him to appear in a great variety of recordings. Here he makes a decent stab at Handel's important tenor solos. In the opening he demonstrates a neat pliable tone plus an ability to open out at the requisite moments.

Samuel Ramey is the King on Janet Baker's recording of Ariodante, conducted by Raymond Leppard. On that recording I found his singing efficient, but rather boring. His account of the bass solos on this Messiah has done nothing to change my opinion. His evenness and control in the passage-work is impressive and, given his attractively gravelly bass voice, his singing is remarkably clean. But I want more I'm afraid. In The Trumpet shall sound we just don't thrill the way we ought to.

In general all four soloists ornament quite discreetly. Though Battle indulges in one or two over-the-top flights of fancy and both she and Quivar give us some octave transpositions, which is certainly a solecism too far.

Which Messiah you buy will depend on your tastes. If you simply want a fine account on modern instruments, then you need look no further than Colin Davis and the LSO. If you want a bigger choir and more operatic soloists, then this Andrew Davis version may appeal, especially if the soloists themselves are of interest.

Robert Hugill


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