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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah, HWV 56 [135:28]
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Tim Mead (counter-tenor); Andrew Staples (tenor); Christopher Purves (bass)
Le Concert d’Astrée Chœur et Orchestra/Emmanuelle Haïm
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Tim Mead (counter-tenor); Andrew Staples (tenor); Christopher Purves (bass)
Le Concert d’Astrée Chœur et Orchestra/Emmanuelle Haïm
ERATO 2564 620555 [65:05 + 70:23]

I love Messiah and never tire of hearing it or of singing it – though I’m jolly glad that the choir in which I sing isn’t one of those that wheels it out every Christmas and does it on the back of a handful of rehearsals because it is thought, quite wrongly, that “everybody knows Messiah”. We perform it every few years and that’s much more satisfactory as it retains the music’s freshness. There’s much that’s fresh, too, about this new recording directed by Emmanuelle Haïm though, as we shall see, there are some issues with it also.

Let’s consider the unqualified positives first. The choral singing is technically superb. The choir consists of six soprano, five male altos, four tenors and five basses. This small group produces sound that is consistently well-focussed. The diction is admirably clear as are the lines – for example, you can hear every strand in ‘His yoke is easy’ and in ‘And he shall purify’; here and elsewhere the lithe singing is a delight. Just occasionally, as in ‘And the glory of the Lord’, it seemed that the alto line was fractionally too prominent but overall the choir sings expertly. The sopranos launch ‘For unto us a child is born’ with what I can only describe as eager joy in their voices – and their colleagues take their lead from that. The orchestra (5/5/3/3/2 plus a pair of oboes, bassoon, two trumpets and timpani) produces a lean, sprightly sound and the continuo players go about their business very effectively.

The team of soloists does well. Sometimes I felt that the ornamentation was a bit overdone but it’s always crisply executed. Andrew Staples is nimble in ‘Ev’ry valley’ – he has to be at the swift tempo that’s adopted. I was a bit disconcerted by the way he starts ’Thy rebuke hath broken His heart’; here the singing is too forthright and only halfway through the number does he start to convey the bleak sadness of the words and music. Elsewhere he fares better and he dashes the potter’s vessel into pieces very convincingly. Only recently Tim Mead impressed me in a Handel performance (review) and he’s on good form here also. He sings ‘He was despised’ very well and I also liked his way with ‘But who may abide’, especially in the prestissimo passages, where he gets exciting support from the orchestra.

Lucy Crowe produces beautiful, warm tone. Some may feel that her singing is a bit too vibrato-rich for Handel but I rather think that the composer would have appreciated the sheer pleasure of hearing the sound. I do wonder, however, if Miss Crowe doesn’t overdo the expression a few times. An example would be the slightly breathless enunciation of ‘And they were sore afraid’ (No. 14b); on the other hand, you get a real sense in these recitatives that she’s telling a story. She sings the 4/4 version of ‘Rejoice greatly’ – I wish more sopranos sang the compound time alternative – and offers sometimes extravagant decoration in the da capo. Much later ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is sung with fine feeling and lovely warm tone.

Christopher Purves is daringly imaginative – effectively so - in his use of soft dynamics in ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’. In a completely different vein he’s commanding in ‘Why do the nations?’ though I question the drop to a very low last note in the aria, something I’ve never heard done before. His last solo contribution is the best of all. He introduces a genuine air of mystery into ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’, again through the use of soft dynamics: Handel, the opera composer, would surely have appreciated that. Then his account of ‘The trumpet shall sound’ is splendid with trumpeter Guy Ferber his telling partner.

Emmanuelle Haïm sets some challenging tempi at times and occasionally I had a sense of the music slightly running away with itself. However, that’s not the problem I have with this set. Rather, what disconcerts me is the fussy approach. The performing edition that is used is by John Tobin and I don’t have access to a score: my score is the tried and trusted Watkins Shaw edition. It’s possible that some of the things that caused me to raise my eyebrows are editorial issues – the low note at the end of ‘Why do the nations?’ could be one such. However, I rather think that much of the fussiness comes from the podium. In general this isn’t a problem while the first disc is playing. Although I think it’s purely a coincidence, most of the problems occur on the second disc, though the fairly fleet speed and the use of double dots in combination don’t seem to sit comfortably with ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, the penultimate track on disc one.

One of the earliest choruses of Part II, ‘And with his stripes’ is far too self-consciously moulded and smooth for my taste. However, that’s as nothing compared with the treatment of the end of ‘He trusted in God’. Most of this chorus is well done, the fugal lines clearly differentiated. However, three bars from the end (“If he delight in him”) the three crotchets are sung staccato and then there’s what sounds like a subito piano on the first note of the penultimate bar followed by a crescendo to the end. I’m sorry but I think this is dreadfully unstylish. Worse is to come in the Hallelujah Chorus where Ms Haïm gets the choir to adopt an echo effect in the opening phrases. This is but the first of several gimmicky dynamic effects in this chorus. Whether this is the result of editorial or interpretative decisions the effect is ghastly. These are just the worst examples but things such as these are cumulatively distracting and, by drawing attention to themselves, impede the listener’s enjoyment.

In the last analysis, despite many positive features, this account of Messiah is too fussy for its own good. I doubt that I shall return to it often in preference to several other admirable versions on my shelves.

The recorded sound is good and the notes by Simon Heighes are very good.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Messiah