George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (1741) [2:22:19]
Bethany Hodges, Janine Ullyette (soprano); Andrea Saposnik, Sarah Bleasdale, Robert Crowe (alto); Benjamin Brecher (tenor); James Martin, Robert McLoud (bass)
Trinity Choir and Orchestra/Owen Burdick
rec. Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York, 5, 11-12 May 1996
NAXOS 8.554511-12 [76:32 + 65:47]
At a time when recordings of Messiah can be had in apparently unending quantities and in every possible approach you may be forgiven for wondering what is the point in a recording which lacks any obvious stars or exciting new approaches. That’s leaving aside the fact that it has taken nearly fourteen years from recording to issue in Britain. I should say straight away that this is unlikely to be an obvious first choice if you want only one version in your collection. However, if you are prepared to take it on its own terms its commanding merits nonetheless make it very much worth hearing.
The performance is built around Trinity Church Choir, made up of twenty-one professional singers, eight of whom are also the soloists in this performance. They are in every way technically the equal of the many European professional choirs I have heard in this work, and have, above all, a very appealing quality of freshness. Having recently greatly enjoyed their recording for Naxos of all of Haydn’s Masses I was expecting that there would be a dancing quality to their singing, and so there is. The liner-notes point out with understandable pride that the first performance of Messiah in the New World took place in Trinity Church in October 1770. That said, it is worth pointing out that it does seem to have taken some time to get there, having been performed in many parts of provincial England in the 1750s and 1760s. It was indeed one of the first of Handel’s oratorios to be performed in a church or cathedral rather than a secular venue. None of this is of great importance, however. What matters is that Trinity Church Choir today - or at least in 1996 - are obviously very much at home in the work and its idiom.
Any discussion of performances of Messiah has to start with the text used, especially as the composer himself changed this according to the circumstances of particular performances. For this reason it has become fashionable to copy the text used in specific performances given by the composer. This performance does not do this, indeed the choice of text is basically that once familiar from Ebenezer Prout’s edition, albeit without his additional orchestration and (optional) cuts. Thus we have “But who may abide” sung by a bass (James Martin) but in the version that Handel wrote for alto, and the 4/4 version of “Rejoice greatly” rather than the earlier, and to my mind much more effective, version in 12/8. The only real surprise - shock, even - in the choice of edition comes at the start, where the first section of the Overture is played very quietly by strings with single dots, but repeated immediately loudly with oboes and bassoon and with the double-dotting which most performers today prefer. Admittedly the choice of single or double dots is one that still exercises scholars but to offer both in one performance is unique in my experience. I have to say, however, that it is very effective in forcing the listener straightaway to listen critically not only to what is being performed but why. Throughout choices of tempo, articulation, decoration (of which there is plenty, but not enough to obscure the basic text) and instrumentation have clearly been thought through with great care. I had no sense that the performers were simply giving their standard performance of a piece they know all too well. On the contrary, they give the impression that everyone concerned was discovering the work for the first time. As a result I, as listener, found myself doing the same.
That does not mean that everything is perfect. Although the soloists are all at the very least adequate to the task and avoid the use of heavy vibrato, some are no more than that and lack the kind of individuality that one expects from the soloists in this work. The orchestra (19 are listed compared with 21 in the choir) play well if not always with great beauty of tone or phrasing. Although players are listed for the harpsichord and organ, and are indeed audible for much of the time on those instruments, for some reason no audible continuo filling-in is included in some arias, such as “If God be for us”. This sounds odd at first but is not ineffective and does make an effective contrast with the busier texture of the choruses. Tempi are generally well chosen although I did find the “Amen” excessively slow.
As you will have gathered, this is not a recording that will appeal to everyone or which is likely to displace established favourites. Nonetheless I enjoyed listening to it immensely and can imagine myself returning to it after hearing too many routine performances of this work. It is intelligent, carefully thought-out and full of rhythmic bounce and life - these are qualities you should never take for granted in musical performance and which are very welcome here.