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George Frederick HANDEL (1865-1759)
Messiah (1741) [2:24:07]
Rachel Redmond (soprano), Damien Guillon (counter-tenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Matthias Winckhler (baritone)
La Capella Reial de Catalunya
Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
rec. live 18 & 19 December 2017, Chapelle Royale, Versailles, France
ALIA VOX AVSA9936 [2 SACDs: 75:40 & 68:27]

Many of those reading this will be familiar with Messiah having sung it in amateur choirs. I was for many years rather snobby about the work: nothing quite so popular could really be all that good. That was before I sang bass in a performance of it and was totally knocked out. There are, to be sure, a few passages where Handel is clearly spinning notes to get the job done; but in most of the work true, astonishing genius shines through. Let me cite, just to be perverse, a single note. There are few more electrifying moments for a choral bass than that C natural on the very last page of the work, especially after having given your all for a good two hours.

I make no claim to detailed musicological knowledge of Handel’s masterpiece. I do know, however, that it was first performed in Dublin under the composer’s direction, and that subsequent performances, even during his lifetime, frequently involved different forces, voice allocations and transpositions. The booklet accompanying these discs tells us that the version performed here was prepared from the composer’s own manuscript score – now held in the British library – with further aspects of instrumental scoring sourced from other documents. The truth is that Messiah exists in numerous versions, but I don’t think most listeners will hear many significant differences when compared to other performances from the 1960s onwards. Photographs taken in rehearsal show the chorus and certain of the soloists using the same Novello score as I have on my desk at this moment, and which was prepared by Watkins Shaw from the same original manuscript.

It was inevitable that the great Catalonian musician, Jordi Savall, would one day give us a recording of Messiah. I’m happy to relate that it has been worth the wait: this is a superb performance. The opening numbers give an idea of what is to come. The slow introduction to the Overture, marked Grave in the score, features double-dotted crotchets as is now the norm, but those crotchets are detached and the phrasing overall is a little terse and abrupt. The faster, second part is delivered at a rapid tempo, brilliantly articulated to remind us that the Concert des Nations is a superb ensemble. The opening tenor recitative and aria feature ornamentation that is both frequent and subtle, and tempi are spirited. Then it’s the turn of the twenty-two singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya: their ‘And the glory of the Lord’ is full of energy and features a broadly drawn out final cadence. This all adds up to a very promising start.

Tenor, Nicholas Mulroy has a very pleasing voice and impeccable diction. He is particularly impressive in coloratura passages such as those in the difficult aria, ‘Thou shalt break them’. Matthias Winckhler gives us a splendid ‘The trumpet shall sound’. Two trumpeters, Guy Ferber and René Maze, are named in the booklet, but I can find no indication of which one plays the solo in this aria. Whichever one it is deserves the highest praise: the playing is as secure as it is noble. Winckhler’s bottom G and F sharp in ‘The people that walked’ are as sure and sound as his fine upper register, though some will find that the flowing tempo adopted for this aria rather detracts from the idea that some of us ‘walk in darkness’. The alto’s big moment is ‘He was despised’, and here too, the tempo is significantly faster than we are used to. Both Paul McCreesh (Archiv) and Richard Hickox (Chandos) need over two minutes more than Savall does here, and much as counter-tenor Damien Guillon does his best, and his best is very considerable, some of the weight and tragedy is lost at this tempo. Guillon is perfectly fine throughout, with only a little trouble with words such as ‘acquainted’ and ‘fire’ (in ‘But who may abide?’) to betray his French origins. No pronunciation problems for Rachel Redmond whose first appearance in the four tiny Nativity recitatives heralds a voice of the utmost purity and beauty. Her big moment is, of course, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, and she carries it off most handsomely and movingly.

The choral singing is uniformly excellent. The rapid vocalises in ‘And he shall purify’, for instance, are frighteningly accurate, and there is no lack of power in those choruses that demand it. The orchestral playing, too, is magnificent. Savall’s view of the work is, perhaps surprisingly, quite middle-of-the-road. With very few exceptions – two of them already mentioned – his choice of tempi is uncontroversial, and he is certainly no speed merchant, at least on this showing. His tempo for ‘For unto us a child is born’, for instance, is closer to that of Colin Davis in his pioneering account of 1966 than it is to that of McCreesh or Hickox. What might deter some listeners is a tendency towards clipped, staccato articulation – at the words ‘Prince of peace’ here, for instance, or at ‘Good will’ in ‘Glory to God’. Neither do I quite see the need for such a sudden and extreme slowing down for the words ‘And peace on earth’ in this glorious chorus. Savall does like to take his time over the closing cadences in many of these choruses – ‘And the glory’, ‘His yoke is easy’, even ‘Hallelujah’, with its splendidly prominent timpani. His tempo for ‘All we like sheep’ is well within reasonable limits, until the slow final section that adds a full minute to the time taken by McCreesh.

Messiah is a big work and there are bound to be aspects of any performance that will not suit every listener. Overall, though, this is splendidly sung and played with little that is likely to bring serious disappointment. There is, of course, a lot of competition. Of the two versions I have used for comparison, Hickox is more conventional, whereas McCreesh’s fleet-footed reading can sometimes leave the listener a little breathless! It is a superb version none the less, one of my choices, and not only because of the thrilling addition, historically justified, of two horns in the ‘Hallelujah’ and closing choruses.

This new version, recorded in concert, is released in impeccable sound with no audience noise to speak of. Alia Vox’s presentation is always sumptuous, and this is no exception. Two fascinating booklet essays are available to be read in any one of six languages, and the sung texts can be followed, should you so wish, in the original English, or in French or Spanish.

William Hedley

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