One comes to this new SACD performance of Handel's Messiah with high hopes. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus Wien have a well-deserved buzz for being musical pioneers who blazed new and interesting trails in the early music, period performance, and period instrument movements. One of the more interesting period instrument Messiah's has long been Harnoncourt's earlier effort, captured on red book 16-bit CD.
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.