In December of 1980 I was part of a performance of Messiah for Handel conference here in Ann Arbor. Scholars came from all over the world to present papers on this work and we performed the piece with a very small chamber orchestra, soloists, and a chorus of about 24 singers. It caused quite a stir, but it was very fun to do.
There is scholarly precendent for such small forces. And in fact the massed armies style in vogue in the 1960s and even today was a 19th century cultural phenomenon. But we all know how much fun such a large ensemble can also be. The really neat thing is that this chorus does not sound small. What it sounds is clear and supple. You can hear the counterpoint and that is the point of this kind of music, isn't it?
Large groups can never have the clarity and fluidity of line that can be achieved with what amounts to a chamber ensemble. It bothers some (but not me) that the voices used even for the soloists aren't operatic in the style of the last two centuries. Well, Handel was an EARLY 18th century composer and the operatic voice was quite different then. Still strong, still flexible, but filling a hall that seated 5,000 wasn't necessary and didn't exist.
Anyway, scholarship or no, this is a wonderful performance based on what is known about a performance of this work in 1753. It is full of life and the soloists are terrific. I especially love Emma Kirkby for all kinds of reasons, one of them being she was the soprano soloist for the 1980 performance here in Ann Arbor. The style here is quite declamatory and more operatic than, say, the Hogwood recording from 1980 (although certainly not Verdi). There also seems to be an emphasis on using English vowels rather than Italianate singing vowels. You should also note that both the soprano, Emma Kirkby, and the bass, David Thomas, on this recording were also on the very different Hogwood 1980 recording.
The choruses are very clear if not as sharply defined or as pointilistic as other early music recordings. For example, the last chorus "Worthy is the Lamb" and the great fuguge "Amen" are full of power, drama, and majesty, however, the some of the effects of the entrances from the different sections that happen right on top of each other don't quite pop out here as they might have. But this is a small point. No single version of this work can include every possible interpretation. The work is too rich and the artists must make choices.
It is also interesting to note the selection of the soloists. Here we have two sopranos (with Kirkby taking different numbers than on Hogwood)and alto AND a counter tenor as well as a tenor and bass. Handel himself often switched around the numbers given to the soloists, and this recording is no different. For example, the solo before the last chorus "If God be for us" (here, "If God is for us") is sung by the alto Margaret Cable (whom I think is really a mezzo-soprano) and is often done by the soprano. And the usual alto, tenor "O Death, Where is They Sting" is here done superbly by the counter-tenor James Bowman and the Tenor Joseph Cornwell.
You should have this in your collection for its beauty and for its contrast to the "traditional" large ensemble performances. I hugely enjoy this version.