Messiah Hybrid SACD
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|1. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Sinfonia: Grave - Allegro moderato|
|2. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Comfort ye my people (Accompagnato)|
|3. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Ev'ry valley shall be exalted (Air)|
|4. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; And the glory of the Lord (Chorus)|
|5. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Thus sayth the Lord (Accompagnato)|
|6. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; But who may abide ( Air)|
|7. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; And He shall purify (Chorus)|
|8. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (Air)|
|9. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; For behold, darkness shall cover the earth (Accompagnato)|
|10. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; The people that walked in darkness (Air)|
|11. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; For unto us a child is born (Chorus)|
|12. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Pifa|
|13. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them (Accompagnato)|
|14. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; And suddenly there was with the angel (Accompagnato)|
|15. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Glory to God (Chorus)|
|16. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (Air)|
|17. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; He shall feed His flock (Duet)|
|18. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 1; His yoke is easy (Chorus)|
|19. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 2; Behold the Lamb of God (Chorus)|
|20. Messiah, HWV 56; Part 2; He was despised (Air)|
See all 47 tracks on this disc
If you want to own one recording of Handel's Messiah , this hybrid Super Audio CD version of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien just might be it-Harnoncourt studied the composer's original manuscripts to craft a performance as close to the intention of the original as possible. And the sound just might make you break out a Hallelujah! chorus of your own!
Harnoncourt makes some interesting points in this live recording with the Concentus Musicus Wien, the Stockholm Chamber Choir, and soloists Elizabeth Gale, Marjana Lipovsek, Werner Hollweg, and Roderick Kennedy, which dates from November 1982. He takes a remarkably gentle approach with "For unto us," making it sound almost as if it were a lullaby, yet achieves real vehemence in the strings' depiction of the "refiner's fire" in "But who may abide." Unfortunately, it is in this aria that we first encounter one of the set's main problems, the rather heavily accented English of soloist Lipovsek. There is also a recognizable foreignness to the way the Swedish chorus sings, which might tend to distance an American listener from this recording. --Ted Libbey --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Seriously, I LOVE this recording. From the tenor's first unusual utterance in "Comfort ye" to the pianissimo opening of the Hallelujah Chorus it is deeply satisfying. There are a number of high-quality Messiah recordings available in standard and early music versions, large and small ensemble versions, and with operatic singers and with chamber singers; to designate a single one as the best is somewhere between pointless and impossible. For conventional Messiah performance style, this is clearly not the choice. But how important is "conventional style," how relevant is it, and what is the basis for it? For fine music making that is well thought out, well executed, and well recorded, this second Harnoncourt version is a clear contender, a real beaut. I recommend it wholeheartedly!
A glance over the four soloists raises our hopes further. Soprano Christine Schafer has just the silver bell voice that can ring out joy in Messiah's arias, a possible equal of one of my great favs, Elly Ameling, or another fav, Arlene Auger. Tenor Michael Schade, ditto. One expects a lot of him just on recorded reputation so far. Will he stand tall in the heraldic line that includes singers like Richard Lewis, Philip Langridge, John Aler, Jon Vickers? Mezzo Anna Larsson steps up, with the memories of really great altos hanging in the balance - the likes of Janet Baker, Yvonne Minton, Anna Reynolds, Anne Sophie von Otter, Helen Watts. Finally, we come to bass baritone Gerald Finley. He, too, might stand in honor of a lineage that has included the likes of Gorgio Tozzi, Gwynne Howell, Bejamin Luxon, Nathan Berg, Alastair Miles, John Cheek, John Tomlinson, Justino Diaz - and one of the great recorded treats, Bryn Terfel in the Chandos / Collegium 90 recording.
No recording of Messiah can fail to take account of the chorus. The Schoenberg Chorus have done very fine work on other recordings - including a cherished Harnoncourt-led (earlier, with Gruberova) Haydn Creation that still sits on my fav shelf. One wonders how they will fare here?
Well, here is the score card, with comments.
Given high hopes, this entirely competent performance disappoints.
The high resolution sound is captured very well, at rather mid-hall position in the famous Vienna venue. Surround sound channels only make more obvious what is mainly missing from this one: Commitment, energy.
If you want to hear Messiah in original instruments, you can go to several other recorded versions, and get a less soporific experience of the work. Messiah is a holiday music tradition, true, in many parts of the world. But it was - and still is, actually - an innovative and controversial work that broke new ground for oratorio (especially in English), for setting sacred texts, and for showing that a work of sheer musical genius that towers high in the genre could also be wildly popular. The major period performance competitors include: Valentin Radu / Ama Deus Ensemble on Vox, Suzuki / Japan Bach Collegium on BIS, Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir on DGG, Pinnock / English Concert on DGG (Arlene Auger), Ton Koopman / Amsterdam Baroque (inactive), Scholars on Naxos, and Hickox / Collegium 90 on Chandos. As a Messiah fan who listens to this music all year round, I can get more heart and more excitement out of any of the competing alternative sets than I can hear in this second outing by Harnoncourt and company. My momentary favs are circling around Radu - probably the punchiest period instrument version so far, capturing an edgy fire that belies its budget price as well as its local cast of Philadelphia unfamous singers and players; and, of course, the Collegium 90 set with the amazing Bryn Terfel, caught in peak form way before he became famous and possibly over-exposed in cross-over pop classics; and thirdly the thrilling, committed version by William Christie / Les Arts Florissant on Harmonia Mundi.
There is nothing terribly wrong with the second Harnoncourt, here, except that it should have been so much better than it actually turned out to be. The chorus is fine, and so are the soloists. Nobody is beneath the music in the technical sense. But the whole business is so entirely customary, polished, and uneventful that it reminds me of all those gala opening nights at the symphony where the real point is to dress up, raise money, and show just how glamorously involved everybody is. This Harnoncourt occasion is all dressed up in black velvet and pearls - and misses the musical point of Messiah by just that much.
A legendary exchange in conversation between one of the British nobility and the composer captures the point. Lord so-and-so supposedly remarked to Handel, after attending one Messiah performance, that it had all been a pretty fine affair, socially and musically very entertaining. Handel's reply was to the effect that he hoped not only to entertain his audience, but to actually make them better people. Listening to this newest Harnoncourt offering doesn't make me better. Given the simply huge talents it tapped for its members, I am curmudgeonly enough and onery enough to still think that it should.
So, disappointing. Three stars at regular and forgetful best.
If you want to widen the circle to include regular instrument performances, you get access to really wonderful alternatives that have hung around in the CD catalogues for some time. My favs from this large group currently include: Mackerras / Ambrosian Singers on EMI; Robert Shaw / Singers on Sony BMG; Westenburg / Musica Sacra on Sony BMG; and the outrageous but zingy Beecham / RPO on Sony BMG. Somary / Amor Artis is currently out of catalogue; but Artemis Classics is re-issuing much of the old Vanguard Recording Society catalogue, often in stunning 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound - so keep an eye out.
Put one of the richly sung and lively alternatives on the player, then. Sit back, and let yourself get lost for about two hours in just how amazing this oratorio really is. If you pay attention, you will surely conclude that Handel wrote an enduring masterpiece that is better than it ever can be played and sung, on any given occasion. (Schnabel talking about the Beethoven sonatas.) Or, as Beethoven said, gesturing towards a manuscript of Handel's Messiah, There lies the truth.
The Schoenberg Choir is clearly a virtuoso ensemble and makes a very strong contribution to the proceedings. Unfortunately, in common with many German speaking choirs, they sing in accented English that can be a little irritating. The English "s" sound (is, his, this, etc.) usually comes out as the double s sound in "hiss". Vowels are sometimes distorted as well. Concerning the soloists, the ladies are good, but that problem of germanic diction is somewhat intrusive. I am impressed by the men. The vibrant voices of the tenor and bass recall the more sensuous sounds and heroic manner of bygone days. Finley, is, I believe, the only native Anglophone in the group.
The orchestra blends precision and beguiling tone with the tanginess of period instruments. We've come a long way from the sawing, scraping and surging that passed for historic performance even a few years ago.
The SACD multi channel sound is satisfying. There is a nice stereo image without a hole in the middle and the rear channels are restricted to subtle hall ambience - no instruments sprinting to the back of the hall in this recording. I downgrade the overall rating because of some interpretive details and my irritation with some of the pronunciation. Contrary to some comments, this recording isn't the first to give us Handel's unedited setting of the word "incorruptible" (in "The trumpet shall sound") with the accent on the "tib". Hogwood did it in his late 1970s/early 1980s version as did Parrott on Virgin Classics and Suzuki on BIS. Hogwood raised critical hackles and one suggestion that the bass soloist should be banned from singing in English for a year!
This version is openly romantic, with full-voiced women in the chorus. It uses a lot of expressive rubato, soft-pedalled accents, religious reverence, and other accoutrements that hark back, amazingly, to the style of Thomas Beecham. The chorus is smallish, and the violins still eschew vibrato, but Harnoncourt gives us an all-around softening of lines that is refeshing. No more clipped double-dotting! One is reminded that the Baroque was a floridly expressive era, and there is no excuse for desiccating the Messiah.
Harnoncourt's ideas are idiosyncratic, of course. We get fast chrouses that come out slow and vice versa. Among his soloists, Gerald Finely stands out as the only serious rival to Quasthoff and Shirley-Quirk for dramatic impact. Christine Schafer isn't a native English speaker, and she tiptoes verbally around her part, but otherwise she is in good form. Anna Larson can't hope to rival Janet Baker and Helen Watts, but in her plain way she's an asset; it's a relief to hear a deep mezzo instead of a squeaky countertenor. Swiss tenor Michael Schade sings in excellent English, and he is canny about negotiating the very difficult tenor lines by alternating semi-crooning and full voice.
Ever since the Messiah was unleashed, we have become accumstomed to anything-goes in tempos, editions, embellishments, alternate versions, etc. Harnoncourt mixes and matches, like everyone else. If I could characterize his approach in a word, it would be spontaneous--he wants us to believe that this music is inspiring him by the moment, and since he is a quirky musician, we must expect his inspirations to be quirky. They are, yet I thoroughly enjoyed his Messiah in the way I enjoyed Hermann Scherchen's, another quirky conductor, fifty years ago.
But unlike many of his compatriots, Harnoncourt's lack of thick, gushy sentimentality isn't code for bland cheerfulness and lack of direction. Drama is used to the extreme but the music moves with definite purpose. What makes this reading revolutionary is that Harnoncourt seems to have overlooked a century of frequent performances that has tended towards stereotyping and monotony. In this way, Harnoncourt's freshness may seem backward-looking. But he combines a feel of great mystery and expectation with the intimacy and tenderness afforded by a period ensemble. These are romantic interpretations in almost every way, though. The nuance and affection in Harnoncourt's phrasing--which has a high dosage of unconstrained rubato--certainly isn't heard every day.
Among the soloists, all of which are front tier, the standout is Gerald Finley, whose vibrant, volatile singing fits perfectly with Harnoncourt's rethinking. The professional Arnold Schoenberg Choir sings with conviction and pinpoint accuracy. We feel the many surges in Harnoncourt's conducting conveyed with sensitivity across a wide range of expression. In all, it's hard to point to a weakness in this recording outside of the fact that we only get one disc of selections. I can't imagine what the whole work would sound like under such inspiration, but what we have is 77 minutes of transforming musicianship that would be hard to forget.
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