Simon Preston's excellent 1990 recording of the 22 year old Handel's choral masterwork Dixit Dominus has withstood the test of time, often appearing as first choice amongst Handelians when judging recordings of it. Released during the early days of the cd and the first flowering of the period instruments movement, it had an interpretive grace that seemed most representative of Handel's intentions. Emmanuelle Haim and her Le Concert d'Astree have released a series of superb recordings in recent years, offering a freshness of interpretation that bespoke a brilliant new voice in the historically informed performance movement. Her Monteverdi recordings are wonderful and her recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas may be the current cream of the crop. She seems to have avoided Bach ... until now. Whether by design or not, she waited until she had accumulated the necessary interpretive chops before tackling these two heavyweight jewels of the German Baroque.
What she and her splendid group, accompanied by some of the finest of the current Baroque era singing specialists, have now released are probably benchmark recordings of these two choral masterworks, supplanting the venerable Preston performance. In the process, Haim makes the older disc seem strangely archaic and inauthentic: perhaps it's the exhuberance of youth versus the inevitable decline of age. Whatever the reason, Haim combines an urgency of expression that prefigures Beethoven, with a sonic clarity amongst both instrumentalists and singers, reminiscent of Ravel and other Gallic composers. In its simplest terms, she is uniting the Germanic and French schools and creating a third way of Baroque expression. It is stunningly successful in these two recordings. The forward thrust of the Magnificat begins with that glorious outburst from the horns and never lets up. The instruments are clearly delineated, softening Bach's complex contrapuntal writing, which can often overwhelm the listener. This is user-friendly Bach, built to please and not club you into submission. In the process, Bach's genius for melody, often hidden in those ornate inner lines, is revealed. This Magnificat is now a human outpouring of joy for the gift of salvation, an expression straight from the heart of the devout Bach. The Dixit Dominus, a work of such melodic brilliance that we are amazed by the youth of its creator, is given a similarly urgent yet disarmingly direct performance. The chorus sings almost as one voice, so skillfully do they perform. The soloists are equally superb. Instruments are brilliant and powerful as they comment on the words, their earthier tones providing an elemental counterpoint to the elegance of the voices. It is all deeply satisfying.
I loaded this disc onto my iPod and not a week goes by that I don't listen to it at least once. Balm for the soul, it is comforting to be in the presence of genius and not feel out of my depth. Bach and Handel may have been titans of Baroque music but Haim emphasizes their humanity, making their music approachable and just that much warmer. These recordings are exemplary, an excellent investment. Strongly recommended.