George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah [136:15]
John WAINWRIGHT (1723-1768)
Christians, awake! [2:03]
Elizabeth Watts (soprano); Catherine Wyn Rogers (alto); Mark Le Brocq (tenor); James Oldfield (bass); Joseph Cullen (harpsichord); Darius Battiwalla (organ); Huddersfield Choral Society; Northern Sinfonia/Jane Glover
rec. Huddersfield Town Hall, 22 December 2010
texts included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD246 [71:17 + 67:01]

To those of a certain age the words “Messiah” and “Huddersfield Choral Society” used to go together as naturally as “Father” and “Christmas”. Their three recordings of the work under Sir Malcolm Sargent, the first in 1946, must have sold in great quantities and given great pleasure to millions. Since then however it is apparent that things have changed in Huddersfield and the old version by Ebenezer Prout that they once championed has now been abandoned. They have recorded it under Sir Charles Mackerras in Mozart’s version but the present version is even closer to that of the composer. Simon Lindley’s brief but interesting note refers to various modern editions including those by Watkins Shaw, John Tobin and Clifford Bartlett without saying which is actually used here. There are no surprises as to which versions of particular numbers are chosen, but two are omitted – “Unto which of the angels” and “Let all the angels”, as is the middle section of “The trumpet shall sound”. None of this is mentioned in the booklet, and no mention is made of the likelihood that most if not all was recorded at a live performance. The only applause is at the very end, and I can detect no sounds of the audience rising to their feet for “Hallelujah” and no applause at the end of it. A note in the booklet explains that it has been customary to sing “Christians, awake!” before performances of “Messiah” in Huddersfield since 1849. If this is a wholly live performance with no “patching” both performers and audience must be congratulated for the absence of noises such as coughing or movement, and the former for the virtual absence of any of those minor faults which can be irritating on repetition. On the other hand it could be that this is the reason for some general lack of excitement for much of the performance, especially in Part One. A feeling of playing safe, of concentrating more on getting detail exact than on the overall spirit of the music, is apparent for much of the time.

The Huddersfield Choral Society of today produces a very different sound to that of Sir Malcolm’s day. The booklet gives no indication of its size as recorded here, but it sounds relatively large compared to the professional choirs who are mainly found in recent recordings of the work. Its singing is nonetheless generally buoyant and lively in tone, and seemingly unworried by speeds that are for the most part much faster than those Sir Malcolm employed in their earlier versions. There is a special, albeit inauthentic, pleasure to be gained from hearing a large and expert chorus in this work, and it is good that a further chapter has been added to the Society’s recorded history of this work.

All four soloists are good, and Elizabeth Watts is much more than that. It is indeed her bright, lively and wholly committed contribution that is for me the chief attraction of the set. The orchestra play well enough, but for too much of the time with a lack of that Handelian energy and fervour which lifts performances of this mighty work out of the ordinary. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a solid and worthy recording rather than one which seriously competes with the best previous recordings of this often recorded work.

John Sheppard

A solid and worthy recording rather than one which seriously competes with the best previous recordings of this often recorded work.