Twenty-eight years after the first performance of Messiah,
its New World premiere in New York in 1770 at Trinity Church. In 1996, the choir
and orchestra of that same church recorded Messiah
under the direction
of Owen Burdick, the church's musical director. In 1997 Trinity Church celebrated
anniversary of its founding, by charter from William III.
Although this Naxos re-issue of the recording does not say so, I presume that
this recording was made as part of those 300th
The choir is a mixed one, with women sopranos and a blend of men and woman altos.
There are a total of 21 singers with an orchestra of 19 playing on modern instruments.
The particular quality of this recording arises not so much from the choir and
orchestra as from the fact that the solo roles are spread between nine singers
taken from the choir.
The opening notes of the overture define the feel of the performance. Burdick
conducts a quiet, low-key opening with moderate speeds. It certainly does not
try to ape period manners. In fact, for most of the work Burdick's speeds are
rather moderate. At first I thought this over-moderation was simply Burdick's
interpretation. But the performers are surrounded by a substantial acoustic halo
from the building and I began to wonder whether the over-emphasis on moderation
was to solve the problem of making the piece work in what is a pretty lively
If you can stand the moderate, and sometimes slow speeds, then the choral singing
is one of the best features of the disc. The choir make a beautiful focused sound,
with a good clean line. I did however notice that there are places where Burdick
encourages them to sing in a slightly stylised way. For instance in 'And with
his stripes', the words 'And with his stripes' are sung marcato, followed by
'we are healed' done legato. This sort of over-pointing of the text/music tends
to mar choral performance, especially when combined with the over-deliberate
speeds in other movements.
The soloists are talented without ever being quite a match for the soloists on
other discs. Tenor Benjamin Brecher sings all of the tenor solos. He has a slim,
lyric voice that can turn reedy under pressure. This feeling that the soloists
are talented and capable without ever being ideal rather hovers over the rest
of the piece. Bethany Hodges has a bigger, richer voice than I would have liked
for the opening soprano solos. And Sarah Bleasdale is quite light for 'He was
despised'. In fact this piece was one where Burdick moved away from his moderation.
He and Beasdale turn in a performance which is relatively fleet, in keeping with
the lightness of Bleasdale's voice. Both James Martin and Robert McLoud have
fine-grained bass voices and both turn in some lovely singing; but it was unfortunate
that James Martin's pitch problems in 'The Trumpet shall sound' were not corrected
in another take.
The orchestra provide lively accompaniment with some good crisp work, giving
a fine chamber orchestra account of the piece without tipping towards period
This is a charming, approachable and likeable performance which does not surpass
the many other available versions. What makes it distinctive is the use of soloists
from the choir. This is something which makes this a truly personal account,
identifying it strongly with Trinity Church. This distinctiveness renders the
performance a little outside the general run. I can't recommend this as any type
of library version, but can certainly imagine people trying it out and finding
in it a certain distinctive charm.
see also review by John