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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah, HWV56 (1754 Foundling Hospital version) [116:22]
Sandrine Piau (soprano), Katherine Watson (soprano), Anthea Pichanick (contralto), Rupert Charlesworth (tenor), Andreas Wolf (bass-baritone)
Le Concert Spirituel Choir and Orchestra/Hervé Niquet
rec. Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris, 2016
English sung texts and French translation included.
ALPHA 362 [46:29 + 68:49]

Hervé Niquet has chosen to record Handel’s 1754 version of Messiah as performed at the Foundling Hospital in London. He was attracted to it partly because it features five soloists through having two sopranos. He also knew and admired the recording of it made in 1979 by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford and Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood. In 2015 a remastered 2CD version of this was issued together with a Blu-Ray disc version (Decca 478 8160) and I shall compare Niquet’s account with this. Niquet offers one page of his thoughts on Messiah rather than Hogwood’s eleven pages of notes on the music, but he explains his motivation and approach. He wants us to hear Messiah as a sacred opera that packs a punch.

A significant feature of the 1754 version is that the forces involved are precisely detailed so it’s possible to replicate these, as Hogwood does. His 40-piece orchestra consists of 14 violins, 6 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses, 4 oboes, 4 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets and timpani, chamber organ and harpsichord. Niquet uses a 29-piece orchestra, with fewer violins (10), violas (3), oboes (3), bassoons (3), as Hogwood 2 trumpets and drums but no horns: there are no specific parts scored for these so Hogwood uses them to reinforce the trumpets in the final choruses of Parts 1 and 2.

In the Overture the sheen of Niquet’s violins is appreciable but the oboes’ doubling is less clear than with Hogwood. Niquet’s introduction is less crisp than Hogwood’s, but whereas Hogwood’s fugal section is brightly articulated yet disciplined, Niquet’s has a touch of abandon in its hurtling counterpoint, conveying a sense of urgency in paving the way for the message. This comes with tenor Rupert Charlesworth’s accompanied recitative, ‘Comfort ye, my people’. As the voice of God he is suave and seductive, smoothly lyrical, a voice of feeling which empathises with the oppressed and destructive. In the aria ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ there’s a sense of fruitfulness lightly celebrated and while Niquet’s fast tempo makes his semiquaver runs easier to deliver I sometimes felt they were a touch over forced. For Hogwood, in the recitative Paul Elliott’s voice has the freshness of innocence and purity, yet he’s more emotive in pardoning the iniquity that Charlesworth lightly throws off. Elliott’s aria is a quieter celebration of orderliness.

Now, with the entry of the chorus, comes the matter of its size and make-up. Handel used 4 (or perhaps 6) boy trebles and 13 men from the Chapel Royal and the 5 soloists (SSATB) joined them, a total choir of 24. Hogwood uses a chorus slightly larger because not including soloists: 5 altos, 5 tenors and 5 basses plus 16 trebles, though I suspect not always all the latter sing, a total choir of 31. Niquet’s chorus consists of 9 sopranos, 6 contraltos, 6 tenors and 6 basses, a total choir of 27. A truly authentic chorus should be predominantly a male one, but female soloists were mixed with it. In which case neither Niquet nor Hogwood are truly authentic, though Hogwood’s all-male forces match more closely the original timbre. Niquet’s opening chorus, ‘And the glory of the Lord’, is fast and frisky, more Allegro molto than Handel’s marked Allegro, but the effect is eager and exhilarating, the strands are very clear and the key message, ‘the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it’ firm. Timing at 2:18, it sweeps across your consciousness and you need to be very alert to take it all in; at 2:51 the steadier Hogwood gives us a more welcoming earthly chorus’ response to the heavenly authority of the opening recitative. The fuller body of his trebles bring a brilliant, emblazoning weight to that key message.

The bass accompanied recitative, ‘Thus saith the Lord’, gets from Niquet’s Andreas Wolf the most vividly violent semiquaver runs on ‘shake’ I’ve ever heard, albeit David Thomas for Hogwood is potent in his vigour. The following soprano aria, ‘But who may abide the day of his coming’, sung by the second soprano soloist, alternates two moods, a reflective, lyrical Larghetto to its title text and a frenetic Prestissimo at “For he is like a refiner’s fire”. For Niquet Sandrine Piau gives us a pained caring in the former and passionate frenzy in the latter. Equally memorable, however, is Emma Kirkby for Hogwood, who produces a pearly questioning tone for the former and angelic searing in the latter. Both sopranos go impressively into the stratosphere in their ornamentation of the reprise of the Larghetto section but Kirkby’s trills in the Prestissimo section are more strikingly muscular.

I should note the distribution of the soprano solos here. Hogwood uses that of the 1754 performance in which the second soprano sang only the aria just discussed plus ‘Thou art gone up on high’ in Part Two and ‘If God be for us’ in Part 3. For Niquet, Sandrine Piau is listed first but sings only 4 of the 15 soprano solos: the aria just discussed, ‘He shall feed his flock’ shared (perhaps, see below) with Katherine Watson, ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.

There are two tests for the chorus ‘And he shall purify’ (tr.7). The first is to sing lightly the ever-present semiquaver runs on “purify” in all the parts in turn. The second is to make clear when, coinciding with these is the text “the sons of Levi” in another vocal part (e.g. 0:27). Both Niquet and Hogwood pass these tests. Niquet’s chorus (timing 2:18) delivers the runs with more evangelistic zeal, if a touch scrambled, where Hogwood’s (2:43) seems rather carefully precise. On the other hand, Hogwood’s trebles’ greater brightness makes for a more radiant purification.

With the recitative ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’ and aria ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’ comes the first appearance of the contralto soloist. It’s rather a slow burn as this is the first recitative not accompanied by orchestra and the aria itself is dramatically transformed by its extension as a chorus. Niquet takes the aria, marked Andante closer to Allegretto, his timing for aria and chorus being 5:07 against Hogwood’s 5:47. Anthea Pichanick sings with smooth assurance and Niquet’s strings, dancing around her prettily, depict the high mountains from which the news ‘Behold thy God’ is to be proclaimed. For Hogwood, Carolyn Watkinson has a warmer, richer voice and she’s able to make “behold thy God” more effectively imploring. In the chorus Niquet reserves the impact of declamation for “arise”, the first time all 4 parts sing together, but it’s the eagerness, and greater numbers, of Hogwood’s trebles that gives his chorus substantial impact from the outset.

In the recitative ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ and aria ‘The people that walked in darkness’ Niquet takes a pacier view of the respective Andante larghetto and Larghetto markings than Hogwood does, timing at 1:34 + 2:51 to Hogwood’s 1:50 + 3:43. In the recitative this makes for a nervy orchestral introduction but rather matter-of-fact initial reportage by Wolf before a smoother realization of the rising of the Lord. The contrast is there but the greater space Hogwood allows Thomas provides more impact for the text as illustrated by the music, the physicality of the Lord climbing some distance to arise and the sweeping descents through which His glory is displayed. In Wolf’s aria there’s a fine contrast between the blind staggering of the people, a shivering trill on the low A, the second time he plumbs the depths at “darkness”, and the beaming light of the Lord. You admire the flexibility of voice and instruments in smooth story telling. Thomas and Hogwood are more patently didactic: the singer, like the people, is lurching around but becomes evangelistically enthused by the coming of the light. Thomas makes more of putting the text across and the clarity of Hogwood’s orchestral articulation exactly matches this.

‘For unto us a child is born’ is a well known and loved Messiah chorus despite what Hogwood terms “the wayward stress” on “For”, explained by Handel recycling the music from his Italian cantata No, di voi non vo’fidarmi. Niquet makes an insightful more general point, that a chorus often responds to the preceding soloist’s text. In this case the emphasis on “For” explains why the people in darkness have seen the light, while the natural stress on “unto us” is accommodated by Handel by its separate phrasing and repetition in individual parts, so that the phrase is heard 8 times. There are 3 elements to the chorus: the happily tripping opening, largely quavers and then semiquaver runs, the tighter dotted rhythms of mission at “and the government” and finally the acclamation of majesty at “Wonderful, Counsellor” and so on, this final element Handel added to the music in this context. Niquet’s opening is smooth yet also eager and jovial, the semiquaver runs rippling along. There’s delight but also assurance in the acknowledgement of government and finally an appreciation of regality. Timing at 4:15 to Niquet’s 3:54, Hogwood is steadier, arguably closer to the Andante allegro marking. This makes for a clear, but less eager, opening, the runs more effortful, yet brings more edge to the acknowledgement of government and more potent acclamations.

The Pifa (‘Pastoral sinfonia’) which follows is the only purely instrumental piece in the work apart from the Overture. In this 1754 version of Messiah, Handel used his original, short version without a middle section, retaining rusticity without the danger of sentimentality. Timing at 0:35 Niquet relishes a real shindig with great bounce to the semiquaver ascents, even if the tempo is quite fast for the Larghetto marking and the sonority full for the mezzo piano marking. Thereby Niquet avoids any suggestion of idyllic pastoral, bearing in mind his observation on how the sections of the work interconnect. The Pifa is the prelude to one and then a chorus of angels visiting the shepherds and evokes their playing the bagpipes. Hogwood does this rather through emphasising the dense string texture with the violins divided into 3 parts, the thirds doubling the firsts an octave lower and violas doubling the second violins. But, timing at 0:53, his approach is comparatively stately.

The sequence of recitatives beginning ‘There were shepherds abiding in the fields’ is the first appearance of the first soprano soloist. For Niquet Katherine Watson sings freshly, the excitement in her voice at the rapid turn of events fuelled by the alternation of unaccompanied and accompanied recitatives, the violins’ semiquavers stoking up the tension in the latter. For Hogwood Judith Nelson brings a pearly innocence, but clarity rather than excitement. Niquet’s achievement in the chorus ‘Glory to God’ is the convincing bonhomie with which he shows heaven and earth coming together with the entries from the lowest to highest parts at “goodwill towards men”. At first the upper parts “Glory to Go”’ is the angels while the tenors and basses’ “And peace on earth” is the shepherds, warmly benevolent following their Pifa. Hogwood is more insistent on hammering out the message of goodwill and thereby the chorus becomes an instruction rather than an experience. What Hogwood catches well is the fading of the angelic vision in the instrumental postlude which Handel reduces to pp. Niquet might have done so too but for a harpsichord in overdrive showering the field with angelic confetti.

Watson and Niquet give a very satisfying account of the aria ‘Rejoice greatly’. It trips along cheerily with its light, frothy roulades in semiquavers, the voice vying with the violins with Watson both animated and assured, yet the slightly more measured middle section allows a touch of greater concentration for the message of peace to be repeated from the previous chorus. With the final ‘shout’ of the reprise Watson ascends to top B flat, one of several stylish and tasteful ornaments. For Hogwood, Judith Nelson’s runs and Hogwood’s violins’ articulation seem comparatively effortful. For the next aria, ‘He shall feed his flock’ and its second part ‘Come unto Him’, in this 1754 Messiah Handel went back to his original version in B flat for soprano. I prefer his later version which sets the first part in F for alto and second part in B flat for soprano. This adds richness to the maternal narrative of the first part and sudden radiance to the exhortation of the second. Niquet tries to achieve a contrast even with just the soprano voice by, according to the booklet, using both sopranos, but in the same styled aria without key change I confess I found it difficult to differentiate them. The booklet order makes me hear the fuller toned, mature and serene Sandrine Piau in the first part in contrast to the brighter, lighter toned appeal of Watson in the second! In 1754 apparently only the first soprano sang this aria. Niquet’s faster treatment of the marked Larghetto, timing at 3:51 to Hogwood’s 4:39, is more effectively lilting while Hogwood with Judith Nelson alone concentrates on intensity of line and density of string texture which does achieve a close of more prayerful serenity.

‘His yoke is easy’, the closing chorus of Part One, is one of the trickiest to sing. This is because of the coloratura semiquaver runs on “easy which originally illustrated ride (‘smiles’) when Handel first composed the music for an Italian duet, Quel fior che all’alba ride. But it fits the text better than the earlier chorus, ‘And he shall purify’, another recycling of this duet where ‘purify’ originally illustrated primavera (‘Spring’). It’s quite an achievement as the key elements of the text, “yoke” and “burthen” require emphasis to give the piece some sinew and prevent it just becoming a kaleidoscope, only then to be thrown off as the message requires. But that very emphasis makes an affirmative close to Part One. Niquet’s chorus does make it sound easy because the parts are well balanced and there are splashes of oboes’ doubling to enjoy. Hogwood, with a slightly slower Allegro, timing at 2:39 to Niquet’s 2:24, is here hampered by his fuller body of trebles overpowering the balance, so there’s too much emphasis on “burthen”.

For the opening chorus of Part Two, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ Niquet, timing at 2:01, adopts a skipping tempo for the Largo marking, closer to Andante. Yet it’s effective, bringing ironic lightness without loss of power, because the texture is still dense with the 4-part writing for chorus and strings and the emphasis of the phrases is downwards. The skipping is emphasised by the dotted-quaver plus semiquaver rhythms and the clarity of the entries of the title in turn in the parts gives it the feel of pockets of a crowd acclaiming. Then the imitation and echoing between the parts is for the more sadly reflective “that taketh away the sin of the world” and the contrast within this brief span is chastening. Hogwood, timing at 2:23, is no slouch in tempo either, more Larghetto than Largo, a touch more formal than Niquet yet the rhythm still spikily treated so that there’s an evident remorselessness in its progression. Hogwood continues to treat “that taketh away” skippingly, like a caustic purification with the dominant, bright trebles’ tone.

The aria for mezzo soprano, ‘He was despised’, is the longest and potentially the most moving in the whole work. It’s marked Largo and Niquet, timing at 7:22, adopts a Larghetto tempo. This gives a lighter quality to the orchestral passages but makes Anthea Pichznick’s articulation of the text angry and protesting about the treatment of Christ and what are usually eloquent orchestral echoes now seem mocking. The close association between voice and orchestra remains intact. The middle section is more taunting anyway, after which the return of the opening is more calmly treated and reflective, Pichznick’s euphonious added ornamentation further distances her earlier emotive involvement. Hogwood and Caroline Watkinson, timing at 10:02, offer a stately Largo, the aria both more sombre and stark, while Watkinson’s greater richness of tone in her lower register gives it more dignity. The central section has more venom and the repeat has more ornamentation, yet dignity remains ever present and the orchestra maintains a pityingly empathy.

Now follows a great trio of choruses, the first of which, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’ is a protesting prelude to the more didactic revelation of ‘And with His stripes’. Timing at 1:25, Niquet favours a Larghetto approach to Handel’s Largo e staccato marking. Niquet’s staccato is sufficiently marked to bring an element of waspishness, but the comparative lightness of vocal articulation somewhat blunts the sense of protest and indeed shame, though the tenors do flower forth at “our iniquities”. Timing at 1:55, Hogwood’s Largo brings more bite and confrontational harshness to the choral articulation. For ‘And with his stripes’ Niquet and Hogwood are closer in tempo, respectively 1:42 and 1:57, the marking Alla breve, moderato suggesting a moderato which is nevertheless not relaxed. I feel Hogwood has this right as he brings intensity and a sense of aching progression. With Niquet the pace seems better designed for instrumental delivery of the counterpoint. The stretched voices sound rather angry in their entries, displaying the stripes. The last of the 3 choruses here, ‘All we like sheep’, has a similar equivocation in its tempo indication of Allegro moderato. Niquet, timing at 3:26, ignores the moderato. This makes for a forthright presentation in which the chorus sheep, honoured on the album cover, glory in sowing their wild oats and they are wild in their exciting semiquaver runs. But the moral punch line, “and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” is Andante rather than the marked Adagio, leaving a contrast which is harmonic but not very marked in tempo or dynamic. Hogwood, timing at 4:07 is moderato to the extent of being punctiliously deliberate. His sheep strut stupidly and stubbornly. But you can enjoy micro details like the kicking passing note in the tenor part at the third delivery of “All we like sheep” (CD2, tr. 2, 0:19), which you can’t hear in Niquet (CD2, tr. 5, 0:12). Hogwood’s more measured close is more reflective, sorrowing, anguished.

The accompanied recitative ‘All they that see Him’ is the first of 3 tenor solos; now we are at the heart of the presentation of Christ’s Passion. It introduces the chorus of the taunting crowd and, timing at 0:34 by Niquet and taken at Allegretto for Handel’s Larghetto, does make a jeering effect in the violins’ dotted-semiquaver-plus-demisemiquaver rhythms. His chorus, ‘He trusted in God’, timing at 1:52 around the marked Allegro, is a surprise, beginning sotto voce in the basses, not Handel’s marking yet spooky in that as the other parts gradually enter you feel you’ve joined an illicit gathering. It’s stylishly done but rather lacking in venom until the sopranos’ entry begins on top G when a hell of spite breaks loose. Hogwood’s times for the recitative and chorus, 0:39 and 2:19 are equally effective. His chorus is sturdily out in the open and relishing its jibing. Hogwood makes it a celebration of counterpoint which, because of the brightness of his trebles, has more of angelic than ghoulish delight.

The accompanied recitative ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart’ and following arioso ‘Behold and see’ are expressively sung by Rupert Charlesworth within a frame of dramatic urgency created by Niquet’s fast tempi, Larghetto rather than Handel’s Largo, the respective timings being 1:05 and 1:07. For Hogwood Paul Elliott’s presentation is more plaintive and sotto voce, the latter element fitting given Handel’s marking of the arioso Largo e piano. The timings here are 1:39 and 1:34. The pathos of the innocent victim that Elliott conveys is very touching. In line with this, in both appearances in the recitative of the phrase “neither found he any” he retains the same note for both syllables of “any” where Charlesworth treats the first syllable as an appoggiatura.

The accompanied recitative ‘He was cut off’ and following air ‘But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell’ are also generally sung by a tenor but were assigned to the first soprano in this 1754 version. In the recitative Katherine Watson continues the dramatic manner of protest at the unfairness of the treatment of Christ. But consolation soon comes in the aria, in which she becomes bubbly and notably operatic in her florid treatment of added ornamentation. Handel’s tempo indication, Andante larghetto, is unusual. The conductor Helmuth Rilling in his book on Messiah terms it “an animated, rather fast tempo which should not be rushed”. And, timing the air at 2:10, I think Niquet gets this right because he does convey in the frequent echoing of the voice by the violins an underlying assurance. For Hogwood, Judith Nelson’s recitative continues Elliott’s sorrowing vein while in the air Hogwood, only a little more measured at 2:22, is sprightly enough and Nelson has a similarly fresh directness in her expression of the good news, amply ornamented. Yet, unlike Watson, I feel a concern to be chaste which is somewhat inhibiting.

‘Lift up your heads’ is a chorus similar to ‘Glory to God’ in that it begins with upper (heavenly) voices asking for the gates to be opened for the King of Glory and lower (earthly) voices asking who is he? Once they know it’s ‘The Lord mighty in battle’ they join in the command. And both groups come emphatically together once the heavenly voices have checked that the lower ones have got the point. Later the sopranos and altos get individual turns at leading the recognition of “the Lord of Hosts”, but the chief feature is Handel allowing all parts at some point to blossom forth in melismas on “Glory”. Handel’s indication a tempo ordinario, neither too fast nor too slow, isn’t very helpful. Rilling suggests “a rather brisk tempo” and here I feel Niquet’s 2:54 is more successful than Hogwood’s 3:16. It instils a fundamental buoyancy, making the worship stylish in a resplendent celebration of Handel’s counterpoint, the violins in particular heavily involved. Niquet softens the dynamic when the chorus repeats phrases, so what is first acclaimed then becomes a secret to be shared. This happens too with the swelling and ebbing of the final, expansive “of Glory”. Hogwood’s trebles are more angelic than Niquet’s sopranos and his violins have more sheen but his emphasis on rhythmic precision gives a rather prim effect. He doesn’t vary the dynamic of repeated phrases.

‘Let all the angels of God’ (tr. 13) is a chorus you’ll rarely hear outside recordings as the high tessitura is very demanding, especially for the sopranos, as is the clarity required for the delivery of both the fugue theme and its countersubject, often simultaneously. In Niquet’s recording it’s easier to hear the theme on the second violins and countersubject on the first violins at 0:07 than the theme on the sopranos and countersubject from the altos at 0:10. Niquet’s desire for a smooth, legato approach at times doesn’t, for me, work in this chorus, neither does opening it mf to get a more contrasted f second statement, as the higher soprano tessitura in the latter makes sufficient contrast. Loud and rhythmically spikier from the start, Hogwood is more successful. His angels have more sinew: the top A of his tenors’ final entry makes Niquet’s at 1:08 seem unduly restrained.

The air ‘Thou art gone up on high’ appears in 1754 in a second version Handel wrote for soprano, now in G minor rather than D minor and its high tessitura is given attractively pearly treatment by Emma Kirkby for Hogwood. But I prefer Katherine Watson’s assured handling of the melismas for Niquet, by turns assertive and ethereal, revealing how the rhythms assert the text rather than just being an end in themselves.

There are two key features to the chorus ‘The Lord gave the word’: the firmness of its title declaration and the articulated quavers that follow it and the sense of release, going out into the world, of the semiquaver runs thereafter. Niquet’s declaration is splendidly vigorous but the release is a little formal owing to the density of the counterpoint, given that all the vocal parts are doubled by the strings. Hogwood’s strings are brighter, his acoustic less glowing, so his semiquavers have more vitality.

‘How beautiful are the feet’ is, some time after the Pifa, the second pastoral movement in Messiah. For Niquet it is beautifully sung by Sandrine Piau, with smooth yet emotive appreciation which allows for a relaxed reflectiveness, yet also underlying yearning, clarified by the violins’ high, sustained, sighing notes. Piau introduces stylish ornamentation in repeated phrases but for me jarring somewhat with the movement’s pastoral simplicity. In this respect I prefer Judith Nelson’s fresh directness, though Hogwood’s accompaniment doesn’t have Niquet’s graceful smoothness.

There are two key elements to the chorus ‘Their sound is gone out’ (tr. 17) which shows the effect of all those preachers in the previous chorus: firstly, the motif to the title text which appears in staggered presentation in all the parts in turn from sopranos to basses; secondly, the rising and falling line, again with the parts crowding out one another, to “and their words unto the ends of the world” which emphasises the scope of the activity. Niquet’s fast tempo for Handel’s arguably somewhat cautious marking a tempo ordinario well catches the evangelistic zeal, especially at the opening, but at the cost of total clarity later. For instance, the final entry of “and their words …” by the altos (0:32) is rather obscure and the later part of the chorus is overmuch dominated by brilliant flashes of soprano sound. Hogwood is only a little less fast, timing at 1:22 to Niquet’s 1:10, but all his parts’ entries and the interplay between them are made thereby more distinct.

The bass aria ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’ is characterized by a swirl of stormy strings running semiquavers and vocal coloratura running quaver triplets. Sadly in 1754 it doesn’t provide the fuller dramatic helping of Handel’s original setting, but this may never have been performed as Handel preferred to move suddenly to a recitative leading into the following chorus. Both Andreas Wolf for Niquet and David Thomas for Hogwood sing with great spirit at a fast tempo, their coloratura incisive and recitative firm, allowing the impetus of the attack to be enhanced in the following chorus, ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’ (tr.19). There’s plenty of coloratura in this too, as the chorus parts in turn ‘cast away’ their yokes in chains of descending semiquaver runs. This is the second key feature of this chorus after its opening imitative entries for all parts on the title words. Heeding Handel’s unusual marking Allegro e staccato, Niquet gets from his chorus a snapping, yapping quality to this opening, with the later ‘cast away’ entries more lightly articulated. I’m uncertain that the stretto, the more rapid arrival of the imitation from 0:46, creates more intensity: rather is there more sense of joy at the freedom of revolution. Hogwood’s approach is more measured, taking 1:56 in comparison with Niquet’s 1:35. This makes his opening staccato comparatively stiff, yet his chorus sings with fervour and bright determination, its stretto spikier.

In the following tenor air, ‘Thou shalt break them’ (tr. 20), fervour and determination are the very qualities evident in Rupert Charlesworth’s account for Niquet, matching the energy of the violins’ introductory and persistent motif which illustrates the dashing of the enemies of the previous chorus into pieces. But should the other feature of this aria be clearer: the chromatic descending bass first heard at 0:06 and later an ascending rise in the violins at 1:03? Rilling suggests this shows the aria isn’t just about God’s power but in the descent a lament that God has sent his Son to suffer and die but in the ascent then to rise again, the victory celebrated in the following Hallelujah Chorus. Hogwood makes the bass lament crisper and more articulate. Timing at 2:00, a slightly slower Andante than Niquet’s 1:50, allows Paul Elliott more comfortable melismas, brightly and serenely observing God’s power.

Niquet succeeds in giving us a different ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. Unusually he begins softly: I recall that John Eliot Gardiner’s 1982 recording with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists was the first to do this. But Niquet then consistently makes the repeated Hallelujahs softer, so the praise is in turn ecstatic and serene. I’m uncertain this practice works so well come the first orchestral tutti with trumpets and drums. Yet once the Hallelujahs are mixed with the chorus’s second motif, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth”, and then the Hallelujahs rapidly interchanged between the parts Niquet, achieves a satisfying musical intensity. Timing at 3:14, Niquet goes for an exhilaratingly paced Allegro though this, coupled with the light articulation, means the great first trumpet descent from its sustained top A on ‘Lord of Lords’ is rather thrown off. Niquet makes up for this by a very firmly marked low D from the trumpets doubling the ATB ‘Lord of Lords’. From the trebles and altos “King of Kings” (1:40 in Niquet) Hogwood brings more majesty and increasing intensity as the vocal tessitura rises, but largely without dynamic contrast except earlier for that between the soft “The Kingdom of this world” and loud “The Kingdom of our Lord”, the third choral juxtaposition of earth and heaven in the work. Niquet arguably has even better contrast here because his soft presentation is still serene while his loud is more searing in its affirmation. His final bars are also splendidly brazen.

Part Three begins with the loveliest of the soprano arias, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ which is nevertheless a challenge in conveying its blend of conviction and concern. It’s both a declaration of faith and an intimate consolation that all will be well. Rilling suggests the Larghetto marking means a reflective but not too slow tempo. I think Hogwood, timing at 5:35, addresses this more successfully than Niquet’s 5:06. The opening ritornello from Niquet doesn’t have quite Hogwood’s relaxed flow, which enables Judith Nelson to present the aria with simplicity and humility of faith at first but also with the edge, at times, of growing conviction. For Niquet, Sandrine Piau sings with more sheer beauty of tone, purely yet also emotively with some tremulous ornamentation, and brings more contrast in that she makes the central section, “And tho’ worms destroy this body”, more urgent, but I get the impression she feels a fair quantity of ornamentation is expected of her, with the result that it becomes more like an encrustation than the natural incorporation which Nelson achieves, aided by Hogwood’s more flowing tempo. It’s telling that Piau’s lovely climax, “for now is Christ risen”, is delivered without any ornamentation. But earlier Nelson has achieved a finer contrast between the loudly affirmed rising of Christ and “the first fruits of them that sleep” by making the latter more markedly a soft lullaby, taking her cue from the p marking in the violins and thereby displaying more variety of tone colour.

The structure and dramatic power of the chorus ‘Since by man came death’ is very clear: a soft, slow opening section facing the reality of death is followed by a loud, fast second section, “By man came also the resurrection of the dead”, a pattern then repeated. But how should death be faced? Hogwood does this traditionally with a quite soft and therefore humble concern. Niquet offers a more stark, agonizing recognition through tense delivery and a crescendo in the repeat of the title phrase. This is both more dramatic and didactic, albeit at the cost of blunting a little the contrast of the second section. Hogwood makes this latter more marcato and thereby more didactic and from him the contrast of an instrumental accompaniment after the unaccompanied first section is clearer. Niquet’s smoother second section seems more formal than energetic.

The aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’ (tr. 25) is one of the highlights of Messiah as it’s the only one with an extended part for a solo instrument, the trumpet. Its marking is Pomposo, ma non allegro. Niquet’s account, timing at 3:44 is moderately fast and not especially Pomposo but I like the serene flow that he, his trumpeter and bass Andreas Wolf create. Everything is jolly, smooth and confident. There are also attractive dynamic variations, subtler than echoes, for example in the sequential phrase duet with the string bass in the trumpet’s first solo and with the first violins in the four occurrences of the same phrase from 1:41. Wolf sings in fine, full tone with a natural bravura. The steadier Hogwood, timing at 4:16, is more Pomposo and therefore majestic while David Thomas’s delivery, tonally plainer than Wolf’s, contains a fitting element of awe. Thomas sings Handel’s original stresses on “incorruptible” which fall on the second and partially fourth syllables whereas Wolf sings the editorial emendation of the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe which is the natural stress today on the third syllable. Unaccountably, however, Niquet omits the central section of this aria, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption”. This explains why we shall be changed, the first section’s mantra, as well as providing a reflective, lyrical, trumpet free contrast, including a telling melisma on ‘immortality’ beautifully realized by Thomas.

‘O death, where is thy sting?’ is the only duet in later versions of Messiah and as such it is a pleasing innovation to have 2 solo voices imitating each other, at first with different texts but on the same theme and then coming together. Handel recycled the music from his Italian duet cantata Se tu non lasci amore and for Niquet Anthea Pichanick and Wolf present it floridly in keeping with its secular origin, intriguingly managing to be both luxuriantly calm and earnest. For Hogwood Carolyn Watkinson and Thomas present it more innocently, like a declaration learnt by rote. The music sparkles more transferred straightaway to the following chorus, ‘But thanks be to God’. Handel exploits the greater opportunities for imitative entries when 4 parts are involved and a quantity of voices which creates a community of witnesses. The lone paraded words of the duet, the scorned “death” and “grave” become the chorus’ grateful “thanks” and the bleak fugato “the sting of death is sin” becomes God’s generosity in “who giveth us the victory” in succeeding entries in turn from basses to sopranos. Now here’s a first, a chorus in which Hogwood at 2:18 is faster than Niquet at 2:38. Hogwood gives us a hearty gratitude with marcato sprung rhythms. Yet I prefer Niquet’s smoother, calmer approach, an overflowing with gratitude which has a surprisingly pastoral quality.

The final aria, ‘If God be for us’, is in 1754 presented in its original form for soprano. Niquet brings a purposeful thrust to the opening ritornello and Katherine Watson’s vocal delivery is correspondingly firm but also emotive, displaying both confidence and delight. A feature of the aria is the contrast between its rather stolid delivery of much text in crotchets and the expansive reflection of long melismas, particularly notable being the one on “justifieth” which from Watson becomes a smooth assertion that God is in charge. Her delivery softens a little for the closing section as it focuses on Christ and its key message, “who makes intercession for us”, where the tone turns more intimate and returns to the gratitude of the previous chorus. For Hogwood Emma Kirkby presents the early text more brightly, with a childlike innocence in faith, but Hogwood’s more florid trills in the violins’ dialogue and Kirkby’s in the melisma on “justifieth” is then imbued with the majesty resulting from the recognition of God’s presence. Kirkby also softens her tone for “who makes intercession for us”, in her case in an intent, warm reverence.

The final chorus, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ (tr. 29) is in 3 sections. First it contrasts a statement of slow (Largo), stately chords with one of moderately fast (Andante) chords and the added punch of drums and excitement of rapidly descending violins’ semiquavers. After repeating this trick it moves at the text “Blessing and honour, glory and power” to a less fast (Larghetto) tempo, a choral celebration displaying counterpoint, imitative entries and interlocking the opening and later texts of blessing before the strings’ semiquaver descending clusters are finally also exchanged by the voices as they affirm Christ’s enthronement “for ever”. Niquet’s Largo statement isn’t massive but wholehearted and, as his previous chorus, grateful, which further develops into a party atmosphere come the Andante, enough to make the one beat silence before the return of the Largo more telling than I’ve ever heard. The hubbub suddenly vanishes. What do you do? You become humble again in worship. But Niquet’s stock of energy is just waiting to explode. His Larghetto continues fast, lightly articulated from the opening entry of the tenors and basses, but athletic. There’s some admirably nifty singing here but as the density of the counterpoint increases its showering can become a little obscure, for instance the altos’ entry at 1:26, the tenors should shine more at 1:40, the sopranos’ entry at 1:57 you might easily miss. You get unbridled vocal jubilation at some cost to clarity of entries, though the violins’ and later trumpets and drums’ contribution is clearly articulated. Niquet’s chorus before the Amen times at 3:03 in comparison with Hogwood’s 3:45. A bright, forthright, hearty opening you get from Hogwood, a full-throated manner from the start, which blurs the contrast between Largo and Andante. His Larghetto is noticeably steadier but Handel’s counterpoint is thereby revealed with satisfyingly clarity. At the cost of a little excitement here’s a more thrilling sound than Niquet’s, with less of the violins but more of the trumpets evident.

The ‘Amen’, the final section of the final chorus, follows without a break. Niquet chooses to have the thundering timpani diminish to a soft roll as a link to the basses’ soft entry with the fugue subject. Handel’s marking is Allegro moderato. Niquet emphasises the Allegro aspect which gives the musical line a pleasing plasticity. The fugue’s countersubject, the repeated sequence of 3 crotchets which first appears in the bass at 3:15 Handel marked with dashes which Niquet presents as a light but clear marcato. Crispness of articulation becomes more marked with the presentation by full chorus and orchestra. Niquet displays the middle section from 4:25 in great waves of melismas. The theme is first heard inverted in the basses at 4:50 and, less clearly, altos at 4:51 after which the interweaving of imitation between the parts is paraded by Niquet as a breath-taking mélange of sound. From 5:16 the stretto between all the parts becomes pronounced to ecstatic effect. Sopranos and tenors heroically exchange their climactic presentation of the inverted theme beginning on top A, but where I’d prefer a distinct pause of silence and awe before the Adagio final cadence Niquet gives us a timpani riff. Hogwood’s chorus times at 3:37 to Niquet’s 3:09. His opening choral presentation is quite sturdy, determined to go for exciting, yet also clear, rhythmic propulsion but, in comparison to Niquet, it smacks of dutiful discipline. Come the full chorus and orchestra presentation the tension and excitement mounts. Hogwood’s is a more revealing celebration of Handel’s counterpoint even if his performance is a less galvanizing experience. And there you have the prime difference between the two approaches. Niquet’s Messiah is chameleon-like: sometimes beguilingly smooth, sometimes vividly raucous. If you want a quick-paced, very human Messiah, this could be for you. And, although I did sometimes find it too fast, I found more to enjoy than my colleague Brian Wilson in his review linked below. But what about you? On this Presto link you can access audio samples of all tracks and a 4-minute video which shows the soloists, orchestra and chorus in action and Niquet being explicit about his bullish approach.

Michael Greenhalgh


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