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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759) Messiah
HWV56 (1741). Oratorio in Three Parts. New concert edition by Sir Andrew
Erin Wall (Soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples
(tenor), John Relyea (bass) Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn
Choir/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Thomson Hall, Toronto, Ontario Canada December 2015 CHANDOS CHSA5176(2) SACD [52:45 + 61:40]
Handel's Messiah – for the English–speaking world at least – remains one of the most popular and well-loved Choral works. And one that has become as much part of the Christmas furniture, albeit rather spuriously, as trees and carols. Whether as a performer or listener I have to say I love the work and since I am always partial to a good arrangement too, I was delighted to have a chance to listen to this new large-scale edition from conductor Andrew Davis. In this age of historically informed practice, I find it rather wonderful that Davis has embraced the idea of rendering a new edition of Messiah on a grand and imposing scale.
In the liner, Davis contributes his own note explaining his choices and general instrumentation. The 'headline' is that Davis uses the instrumental palette of a large Romantic/Modern orchestra. This means a full wind and brass compliment including oboe d'amore, alto flute, quite extended percussion – a discreet marimba and glockenspiel alongside more 'standard' side drum, cymbals and the like as well as harp and organ providing elements of the original continuo. As Davis says, he is by no means the first to up–scale Handel's original. Best-known are Mozart's subtle and effective expansion and Eugene Goossens' version famously used in Beecham's epic recording. Davis describes the latter as; "imaginative but overblown (and occasionally even verging on the vulgar)". I would not share that rather damming critique – for sure this new version is subtler but in its own right and on its own terms the Goossens remains a powerful re–imagining of the work – especially with Beecham's telling conducting and Jon Vickers singing the tenor role as Wagner–meets–Handel. I seem to recall that the Penguin Guide thought the Beecham merited a rosette at one time and they also rightly pointed to Beecham's telling sympathy for Handel.
The key thing is that Davis uses this potential range of tonal colours with great and judicious care. The number of times when every instrument plays is few if ever. Important to say too, that none of this would matter if the essential core of the work; its interpretation and execution was not good. Davis has chosen singers with 'bigger' voices than would be the current norm of HIP versions and likewise a larger choir but all the singers are very fine and one in particular I really like. Similarly, the playing of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is sensitive and alert with some beautiful solo contributions at key moments. All of the members of the orchestra and choir are listed. Assuming all the choir members were present at this recording this means it totals 47 sopranos, 42 altos, 23 tenors and 34 bass – 146 voices in all. They make a powerfully and impressive sound – not surprisingly without the extraordinary agility of say John Eliot Gardiner's Monteverdi choir but with impressive unity of ensemble and attack. Just occasionally Davis sets a tempo – Let us break their bonds for example – that tests them but the lightness and spring of the ensemble is impressive as is their reserves of power in the climactic choruses. Likewise Their yoke is easy is made to sound easy in a way that eludes most non–professional choirs.
No version of such a big work will be without quirks or surprises. Davis takes a generally 'historically aware' position. Tempi are flowing – often fast and rhythms are well–sprung. I am curious to know why he chooses not to double dot the rhythm of the opening of Part II – playing the printed dotted crochet/quartet note with a quaver/eighth note feels distinctly old-school. For myself I prefer the 12/8 variant of Rejoice Greatly but this 4/4 version is beautiful in its own right. Davis' version occupies two not overly filled discs. Very few concert performances include every movement Handel wrote for The Messiah. Because this is taken from live performances this means certain sections have been omitted. So after Lift up your heads we jump to The Lord gave the Word. This misses out; Unto which of the angels, Let all the angels of God worship him, and Thou art gone up on high. Also missing is Their sound is gone out and in Part III; Then shall be brought to pass, O death where is thy sting, But thanks be to God and If God be for us. Some listeners will feel the loss of these sections more keenly than others. As performed I would have enjoyed hearing them but I will happily turn to other versions when I feel the need for a truly complete version.
Returning to the question of how Davis makes instrumental choices I was struck by two things. Davis is always extremely sensitive to the text that 'drives' the music. As he makes clear in the liner he makes judicious use of the full orchestra to point and colour the text. Often I felt this was how Handel might have written the music if he had had access to these instruments. Elsewhere, I thought Davis showed his origins as an organist in the way he orchestrates in a registrational way – almost swapping between an organ's keyboards. So in the opening Sinfony the repeat is taken by the strings after the woodwind/brass first time. But this is much the same technique as Handel employed himself in the full orchestra versions of the Fireworks Music and elsewhere. I love the extra weight the low wind and brass bring to the texture – but Davis never allows this to bog down. Overall, I think Davis' orchestration is very successful indeed – the brass writing is a particular delight adding sonority and brilliance. I like the simple idea of playing the Pastoral Symphony by the woodwind alone. Elsewhere, the organ adds impressive weight and power at key moments. The harp is reserved tellingly for some lovely moments of harmonic embellishment and support. My only real disappointment is Davis' use of percussion. The timpani writing is fine – nothing untoward. Elsewhere it feels too often that it has been bolted on as extra aural garnish rather than being an essential part of the fabric of the conception. This is particularly true of simply odd sleigh bells in the Hallelujah Chorus and tambourines in The Lord gave the word.
In both cases Davis cites his own extra–musical association which explains his choice but to the average punter sounds anachronistic in the way nothing else in this edition does. Davis rightly points to the whimsical aspects of elements in this music but as with so much humour – this is an intensely personal thing. Enshrining in music something that you find amusing risks it falling flat for others. So where a tambourine for Davis might encapsulate a Salvation Army – like religious zeal – to me it sounds simply like poor orchestration. I also do not like the way Davis uses the glockenspiel or marimba to double the melody in a couple of the choruses either. My extra–musical association of this effect is German marching bands where the tune is endlessly doubled in just that way. But I must stress – these are tiny dissentions by me over a huge canvas where the vast majority of musical choices satisfy and delight.
A mention in more detail now of the soloists. Rightly, as mentioned earlier, Davis has chosen singers with mainly bigger voices than one would associate with modern HIP performances. This is especially true of mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. She has a wonderful old-style contralto tone and a dramatic delivery that is wholly in keeping with the scale and aspiration of this performance – this is the stand–out voice of the solo group. Likewise tenor Andrew Staples who in no way tries to evoke Jon Vickers finds an excellent middle path between lyrical beauty and power. Bass John Relyea has a real ruddy–faced bass voice – somewhat reminiscent of Benjamin Luxon I thought – occasionally veering towards the same wide vibrato that marked that great singer's later recordings. But he is the focus of a wonderfully driven Why do the nations as well as a suitably pomposo The trumpet shall sound. Davis uses just the four soloists which leaves soprano Erin Wall. She has a beautiful and lyrical tone but given the style and scale of this edition I wondered occasionally if she held back from being very expressive. So I know my Redeemer is beautifully held but slightly musically anonymous – nothing to cause offence but little to catch one's breath either – but I did enjoy the opening melody appearing on an unexpected clarinet.
Soundmirror working on behalf of Chandos has caught these performances recorded live a year ago in very good natural SA-CD sound. I listened to the standard two channel SA-CD layer but this is listed as a multi-channel disc. There is no discernible audience noise during or after the performances and the balance between orchestra, soloists and choir is very well managed. The dynamic range is predictably wide and again well handled. The set is supplied in a slim-line two disc case tucked into a cardboard sleeve which allows the thicker than usual liner booklet to be contained in the sleeve rather than the jewel case. This liner includes full texts in English only as well as a fairy extensive guide to the work and specifically this edition by Andrew Davis himself.
What does shine through this project first and foremost is Davis' love for the work and his wish to serve it. Rather touchingly Davis concludes his note by dedicating his edition and this recording to the memory of his parents. This is a project executed with above all passion with no room for complacency. In no way is this just another Messiah. Individual listeners will know before they try or buy whether the concept behind this new version will appeal. If you think that it will then prepare to be delighted, occasionally surprised, occasionally perplexed but more often than not thrilled by the majesty of this enduringly glorious music. A performance I will return to often and with great pleasure.