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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah, oratorio in three parts for soloists, choir, orchestra and basso continuo, HWV 56 (1741) [133.90]
Julia Doyle (soprano); Tim Mead (countertenor); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass)
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Justin Doyle
rec. Jan 2020, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahelm
Notes and libretto in English and German
PENTATONE PTC5186853 [50:35 + 83:55]

How pleasant it is to be able to welcome this fine new recording of Handel’s Messiah just in time for the holiday season. Recorded in Berlin in the first month of 2020 this was likely one of the last projects of the Berlin musical ensembles before the pandemic forced all performances to close down; as such it is a hopeful promise of some great music making to come once artists can truly resume their callings again.

Possibly the most remarkable feature of this recording is the stunning clarity of sound that Pentatone’s engineers realized in the sessions. There can be no doubt that they were assisted in this by the wonderful acoustical properties of Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Kirche. This gem of a church has been the location of many particularly fine recordings since the end of WWII including Herbert von Karajan’s long celebrated 1965 recording of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung for DG. The church has been long been noted for its incredible acoustics; indeed, no less a conductor than Igor Markevitch once declared that he preferred making recordings there over the studio because he could better assess how crisp the players were in such an environment. The sound of this Messiah is among the most perfectly transparent I have heard on any recording come across over the years. I feel duty bound to acknowledge the producer Florian B. Schmitt and the sound team of Henri Thaon and Regine Kraus for a spectacular effort in sound engineering.

Fine sound alone does not necessarily a good recording make but I am pleased report that this is a finely performed account of the Messiah from all concerned. The ever-exemplary period ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are simply superb under the baton of Julian Doyle. This Messiah is fleet and sure-footed on its journey; Perhaps a bit more than I would prefer in a piece like “O thou that tellest glad tidings to Zion” which loses its gentle lilting feeling if taken at too quick a pace as I think it is here. The orchestra is sweet sounding and yet there is a linear clarity to so much of their playing. As an eample I particularly enjoyed the wonderful accents that the string section achieved in “Thou shalt break them”, again aided enormously by the high clarity of the sound. Mr Doyle definitely approaches the work as a complete entity, with a view towards the full dramatic arc of the oratorio. This means that highlights such as the Hallelujah chorus do not bring things to a climax too early, which can often leave the third part as a sort of anti-climax once the tension ratchets down. Here the Hallelujah chorus begins with a reflective joy that works its way forward to a sense of triumph and I happily noted that the valve-less trumpets did not overwhelm the proceedings as they sometimes do in other recordings. Thanks to Doyle’s care over the dramatic arc of the oratorio the final “Amen” chorus becomes the true climax which is a distinct gain to the cohesiveness of the work. The work of the RIAS Kammerchor is a model of sweetness and clarity. The choral textures are as clear as light passing through crystal. “Behold the Lamb” is expertly achieved and the precision of the engineering shows a choir that is thoroughly proficient at the rapid passagework of “All we, like sheep”: one of the hardest moments for choirs to achieve with crisp ensemble.

The soloists are an excellent assembly of mostly young voices all caught at their peak. Thomas Hobbs’ elegant bright-toned tenor is more than adequate for the role, and his refined tenderness in such moments as “Behold and see if there be any sorrow” is deeply affecting. Julia Doyle is a soprano with delicate instrument that sounds choir-boy-like in its tonality but her thoughtful phrasing imbues her pieces with a maturity which culminates in a performance of “I know that my redeemer liveth” that is boyant and sincere; a far from easy balance to achieve. Tim Mead’s rich alto tone is a nice contrast to the more linear sounding voices of the other soloists. “He is like a refiner’s fire” is sung with control but there is no lack of passion either. “He was despised” eschews any hint of the operatic in a beautiful performance that hits straight to the heart. The bass Roderick Williams was the only singer that I had previously encountered in his recital album of Elgar’s Sea Pictures. It surprised me that his lovely dark-hued voice adapted so well to Handel’s coloratura demands in such pieces as “Why do the Nations Rage” which he sings with absolute security. He certainly need not fear losing out in comparison with such past singers as Samuel Ramey on the Andrew Davis version for EMI.

Pentatone has provided a cardboard gatefold with the text and libretto glued in to it, which makes reading it a bit awkward. Instead of the usual historical information about the oratorio, someone has conceived the rather quirky idea of having a lengthy interview between Handel and librettist Charles Jennens, somewhat like the making of documentary that you find on some DVDs. I presume that the various facts are derived from journals and surviving letters held in various archives. It is entertaining to read if a bit on the bizarre side of things.

This is a very impressive all around recording of the Messiah which advances to the front rank of the authentic instrument versions that garnered notice over the years and indeed to my ears Pentatone’s Messiah rather exceeds many of the older ones by way of its beautiful performances and the exquisite quality of the sound.

Mike Parr

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