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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah, HWV 56 [135:58]
Julia Doyle (soprano); Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor); Steve Davislim (tenor); Neal Davies (bass-baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; B'Rock - Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent/Peter Dijkstra
rec. live, 21-27 November, 2014, Herkulesaal, Munich
English text and German translation included
BR KLASSIK 900510 [72:29 + 63:29]

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 da capo 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 reviewed 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 voice.

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 affected.

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 Handel singing.

Despite one or two slight reservations this is a version of Messiah 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 is 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.

John Quinn


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