George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Messiah [134.17]
Lynne Dawson (soprano)
Hilary Summers (alto)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Alistair Miles (bass)
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury
rec. Pieterskerk, Leiden, 1993
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94127 [64.40 + 69,37; 136.00 (2CD+DVD)]

Handel premiered Messiah in Dublin with a chorus of men and boys with a female soprano and contralto soloists – a combination that he generally stuck to. On one occasion he did in fact use boy trebles as soloists and when he had a castrato available, he was added to the line-up. Interestingly Handel never used an alto castrato for He was despised and the other main alto solos, always preferring a woman.

This recording was made in 1993 and provides a relatively rare outing on disc for Handel’s preferred mixture of voices. Despite opting for King's College, Cambridge forces, rather interestingly this was made not at King's but at Pieterskerk in Leiden. The advantage is that we get a more precise, closer recording than would have been possible in the generous King's Chapel acoustic.

The soloists are a well chosen, nicely balanced group all young at the time of recording.

Cleobury opted for the traditional version of Messiah. Though Handel never produced a final definitive edition, the fact that it was performed annually at the Foundling Hospital meant that a tradition developed. That said, Handel's tendency to tinker with pieces at each performance means that we have a generous variety of possibilities and Cleobury's choice is very much the most conservative one.

John Mark Ainsley makes an admirable tenor soloist, with a combination of a lovely sense of line and certain muscularity. Hilary Summers is quite a cool alto soloist, her wonderfully straight tone suits Handel's music well, but her performance can lack the warmth that some mezzos bring to the role. Even so said, I found her account of He was despised profoundly moving.

Bass Alistair Miles displays a fine fluency with Handelian fioriture without any of the associated bluster which can trouble singers in this role. Lynne Dawson has a richly vibrant voice and is highly familiar in this repertoire. She is beautifully fluent, though in her opening solos I would have preferred less vibrancy and more cool purity.

All the soloists are quite generous with their ornamentation, perhaps a little too generous. I favour relatively simple ornaments in the oratorios, though this is only a personal preference.

The choir are on strong form, singing crisply and fluently. Though individual movements are impressive, the performance lacks a sense of cumulative drama. One of the brilliant novelties of Messiah is the way Handel uses the chorus to propel the narrative. This sense of drama is missing. Cleobury and his forces present us with a series of fine moments, not an unfolding drama.

One review of the original 1993 disc was troubled by the discrepancy between Cleobury's rather traditional style and the period manners of the Brandenburg Consort. This was not a problem for me and I enjoyed the combination of the period band with the cool sound of the all-male choir.

The set is a super budget one, so there is no libretto included; this isn't much of a problem with a work as familiar as Messiah and the libretto is available to download on the Brilliant web-site.

One curiosity of this Brilliant Classics set is that it includes both the CD recording and the DVD, so that you get the performance twice. The DVD is inevitably rather static and quite period in style and looks. Rembrandt etchings are used to illustrate moments from the story, though this is done in a very limited way.

In an ideal world, if you wanted a recording of Messiah with a choir of men and boys, then I would recommend Christopher Hogwood's ground-breaking recording. But Brilliant's prices are highly affordable and any faults that this recording may have are ones that I could happily live with. Whilst the set would not be a library choice, I would welcome it onto my shelves and return to it with pleasure.

Robert Hugill

Return to this with pleasure.