George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Messiah (1742) [142.19]
Rebekah Wilshire (soprano); Bethany Hodges (soprano); Janine Ullyette (soprano); Sarah Bleasdale (alto); Andrea Saposnik (alto); Robert Crowe (alto); Benjamin Brecher (tenor); James Martin (bass); Robert McLoud (bass)
The Trinity Choir and Orchestra/Owen Burdick
rec. 5, 11, 12 May 1996, Trinity Church, New York
NAXOS 8.554511-12 [76.32 + 65.47] 

Twenty-eight years after the first performance of Messiah, it received 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 the 300th 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 anniversary celebrations.

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 acoustic.

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 performance practice.

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.

Robert Hugill 

see also review by John Sheppard