This recording of Handel's masterpiece was recorded at performances in
Munich in November 2014. I'm not sure quite how many members of the Chor des
Bayerischen Rundfunks were involved - the booklet photos suggest just over
forty singers took part. I've heard this choir on many occasions in the past
- usually at fuller strength than here - and their excellence can pretty
much be taken as read. However, I've not previously encountered the Belgian
period instrument ensemble B'Rock. They contribute very stylish, crisp
playing here. The performance is under the direction of Peter Dijkstra, the
choir's Artistic Director since 2005.
Dijkstra sets out his stall at the outset with a cleanly articulated,
crisp and fleet account of the Overture. During the course of the
performance his tempi are often swift but there weren't too many occasions
when I felt that the music was being rushed. Furthermore, he's prepared to
adopt a relaxed or spacious speed when the need arises. From time to time I
noticed a little bit of fussiness about dynamics but these were isolated
instances. The members of B'Rock play extremely well for him.
The choir's contribution is one of the great pleasures of this
performance. The singing is consistently alert and precise - as you'd expect
from a professional ensemble - and their diction is crystal clear, allowing
us to hear that their pronunciation of the English text is faultless. The
choir is capable of producing a nice, full sound but this is never overdone.
'For unto us a child is born' is lightly sung, the performance invigorating
and joyful. There's excellent discipline in such choruses as 'His yoke is
easy' and 'All we like sheep'. The big moments, such as 'Hallelujah' and
'Worthy is the Lamb' make a satisfying impact. Anyone acquiring this set
should feel more than satisfied with the choral singing.
Dijkstra opts for a male alto rather than a female - there are arguments
for either. His soloist is the American counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo. I
enjoyed much of what he does though I felt that once or twice he overplayed
his hand in the matter of decoration. I noticed that, for example, in the
of 'But who may abide the day of His coming' - yet I
relished his vocal athleticism in the faster sections of this aria.
Similarly, parts of 'He shall feed his flock' were a bit too elaborate for
my taste. For comparison I turned to the Stephen Layton performance that I
a few years ago. There the alto soloist is
Iestyn Davies, who I thought was the pick of Layton's solo team. He, too,
decorates the line, of course, but in a way that seems less obtrusive to me.
Also, as a matter of purely subjective taste, I prefer Davies's rather
'narrower' tone to Zazzo's more fulsome sound. Having decided that I prefer
Layton's alto in 'He shall feed his flock' I should record that I preferred
the more languorous speed that Peter Dijkstra adopts in this number; his
speed invests the music with rather more expression than Layton allows.
My reason for taking the Layton performance down from the shelves,
however, was that both recordings use the same soprano: Julia Doyle. I like
her contribution to this Dijkstra performance. She uses many of the
embellishments that she deployed in the Layton version but I have the
impression that she decorates her lines slightly less in the Layton
performance than she does for Dijkstra. Here I like the agile, happy
rendition of 'Rejoice greatly'. As on the Layton recording the 4/4 version
is performed - I must admit to a preference for the compound-time
alternative. Dijkstra's tempo is quite brisk but Miss Doyle is unfazed.
Later she offers a lovely, poised account of 'I know that my Redeemer
liveth'. We also hear her in the second half of the so-called Passion Arias
in Part II for Peter Dijkstra opts to switch from tenor to soprano solo for
'But thou didst not leave his soul in hell' and its preceding accompagnato.
Incidentally, the booklet compiler was clearly unaware of the change of
soloist for all four of these items are listed as being sung by the tenor.
The use of a soprano at this point is by no means unusual and Miss Doyle
sings the music beautifully. However, I think the switch of voice is a
mistake. These numbers represent a pivotal shift between the sorrow of the
suffering of Christ and the joy of the Resurrection. The whole of Part II -
and, arguably, of the whole oratorio - is turned around here and I believe
there's a very strong argument that this is best conveyed through one
Dijkstra's tenor is the Malaysian-born Australian, Steve Davislim. As it
happens, I find the way that he delivers his portion of the Passion Arias
rather disappointing. He's certainly expressive in 'Thy rebuke hath broken
his heart' and 'Behold, and see'. However, for my taste he uses too full a
voice and there's no real sense of inwardness. He's better in the opening
solos, 'Comfort ye' and 'Ev'ry valley' to both of which his clear
articulation and vocal ring are well suited. 'Thou shalt break them' in Part
II also suits his dramatic style but in this aria I disliked the slight
holding back that he regularly deploys on the words 'Thou shalt'; it sounds
The bass is Neal Davies and he's very much to my taste. In 'Why do the
nations?' he offers splendidly dramatic singing - there's terrific vocal
presence here - and in the section that begins 'The kings of the earth rise
up' his articulation of the notes is enviable. The highlight of his
contribution, however, is 'The trumpet shall sound'. In the outer sections
his singing is truly commanding and he sounds absolutely splendid. But what
really made me sit up and take notice was the quietly lyrical, almost
confiding way in which he delivers the central section, 'For this
corruptible must put on incorruption'; this is understanding and imaginative
Despite one or two slight reservations this is a version of
that I enjoyed very much. At the end of his note
accompanying his own recording Stephen Layton pointed out that performances
of this great oratorio are never the same: "Handel's Messiah
ever renewed." I certainly felt that about this recording. The performance
is relayed in a recording that is clean, clear and well-balanced. Though
it's a live performance there's no intrusion by the audience - and there's
no applause. The documentation is good but I do feel it's a bit rude to
include information about the choir, orchestra and conductor but not a word
about the soloists.