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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Messiah (HWV 56)

[I] Sandrine Piau, Katherine Watson, soprano; Anthea Pichanick, contralto; Rupert Charlesworth, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass
Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet
rec: Dec 20 - 22, 2016, Paris, Notre-Dame du Liban
Alpha - 362 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.56'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] Miriam Feuersinger, soprano; Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, alto; Dino Lüthi, tenor; Raitis Grigalis, bass
Musica Fiorita
Dir: Daniela Dolci
rec: Oct 19 - 23, 2015, Binningen (CH), Pfarrei Heilig Kreuz
Pan Classics - PC 10361 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (2.21'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet


At the time of writing this review, we are in the middle of Lent. That seems a rather strange time to listen to a performance of one of George Frideric Handel's most famous works, his oratorio Messiah. Although the time of the ecclesiastical year is ignored more often than not (except in my country, the Netherlands, where it is unthinkable to perform Bach's Passions at any other time than Lent), Messiah is generally associated with Advent and Christmas, and considered an alternative to Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio. However, the first performance of Messiah took place in March 1742 in Dublin. Since then, Handel himself performed it regularly, and always during Lent, never in the Advent period. It seems to me that it would make much sense to follow his example. Why should the time of performance not be part of historical performance practice? For historical reasons I decided to review two recent recordings of Messiah at this time of the year.

If one looks at the data of these two recordings, two things immediately attract attention. Firstly, Hervé Niquet needs considerably less time than Daniela Dolci. Secondly, he uses five instead of four soloists. The latter is the result of the fact that Niquet decided to perform the so-called 'Foundling Hospital' version, which dates from 1754. This was also the version recorded under the direction of Christopher Hogwood; Niquet specifically refers to this recording in the booklet. The choice of this version, or rather a particular version, is praiseworthy, as "[conductors] usually pick and choose their favourite versions to make an inauthentic composite programme" (David Vickers). The latter is also the case with Dolci's recording.

The choice of the 'Foundling Hospital' version only partly explains the shorter duration of Niquet's recording. For this performance Handel strongly abridged the Pifa in the first part. However, much more important is the fact that Niquet generally opts for quick tempi. It seems that Handel generally took less time for his performances than what is common today, but that was not Niquet's motivation. "I've opted here for an operatic interpretation, taking its cue from the drama inherent in this account of the life of Christ. This Messiah is an opera, a sacred opera, but without all the hassle of the production, the sets that don't arrive on time, the ballerina and the corps de ballet, the costumes that aren't ready. And suddenly you realise that we have an extremely violent story here." The latter statement obviously only regards the second part, about the Passion of Christ. There is more. "I also took a different approach to the Pifa, which is very short in this version, less than twenty bars. In general it's played very slowly, as if coming down from the angels. I think, on the contrary, that it represents the shepherds who arrive and are dazzled by the sight of the angel. So I added a drone to make it genuine pastoral music - not little sheep in a paper crib. I need to hear the shepherds truly rejoicing here. It makes quite an impact!"

The effects of his approach are most strongly notable in the second part. The alto aria, 'He was despised', is meant to be performed in a dramatic way; it takes 7'22" (in comparison: Dolci needs 10'31"). It has a disastrous effect: it lacks any emotion and little remains of the contrast between the A and the B part. To make things even worse: the intention to perform it in a dramatic way falls down as Anthea Pichanick's singing is rather colourless and weak. Niquet writes that "the chorus has a very powerful dramatic part to play". He is right, but that is no reason to perform them at such high speed as is often the case. The pianissimo opening of 'He trusted in God' is artificial and makes no sense. I already mentioned Niquet's treatment of the Pifa. The addition of percussion is sheer nonsense, and in combination with the fast tempo little is left of the siciliano rhythm which is so characteristic of Advent and Christmas music. A further explanation of the relatively short duration of this recording is the fact that only the A part of the bass aria 'The trumpet shall sound' is performed. This is not in accordance with Handel's own practice, and in this version there is no indication that the B part should be omitted. Before the final cadences Niquet includes a short solo of the timpani. This is quite ridiculous.

Niquet defends his interpretation in an engaging manner, but in my view this 'operatic' approach is fundamentally wrong. There is no action here; Messiah is a truly reflective work about the nature and effect of Christ's life and work, and requires an expressive performance. Exactly that is missing here; it is partly due to the fast tempi that this performance has little impact. The tempi are often at the expense of a good articulation. The performances of the soloists are different. Sandrine Piau and Katherine Watson don't make a very good impression, partly because of their incessant vibrato. Piau greatly exaggerates in her ornamentation in the dacapo of 'But who may abide'. I already mentioned the disappointing role of Anthea Pichanick, whose singing is not exactly free of vibrato. The same goes for Rupert Charlesworth, whose diction is very good; he is at his best in the second part. 'Comfort ye' and 'Ev'ry valley' are largely disappointing. Andreas Wolf 's contributions are the most convincing. It's a shame that he did not get the opportunity to sing 'The trumpet shall sound' at full length. I won't forget to mention here that Niquet is one of those performers who embraces the attempts to perform the brass parts on real original instruments. Here it is Jean-François Madeuf, who performs the trumpet part.

In comparison with Niquet's interpretation, Daniela Dolci's performance is much more expressive. There are several reasons for that. First of all, she has the better soloists. I have admired Miriam Feuersinger mostly in German sacred music, but here she is just as good; 'Rejoice greatly', for instance, receives a lovely performance. Flavio Ferri-Benedetti is so much better in 'He was despised' than Anthea Pichanick; he really explores the depth of this aria with his differentiated interpretation. Dino Lüthi has a very good diction, which is especially helpful in the sequence of recitatives and short arias in the second part. I would have liked a little less vibrato, though. Fontunately his colleagues are almost free from it, except when it is needed for expressive reasons. That also goes for Raitis Grigalis, who sings well, but for his part I would have liked a stronger voice. The soloists pay much attention to the text, which is always clearly intelligible. There is also a nice differentiation between good and bad notes.

The same goes for the tutti, in which the soloists are joined by two ripienists; only Feuersinger does not participate in the tutti (I wonder why). A choir of twelve voices is rather small in a work like this, but it allows for a performance which reveals many details, and which is more intimate than we probably are used to hear. The fact that the tempi are generally more moderate than in Niquet's performance also plays a role. There is less pump and circumstance in choruses as 'Hallelujah' or the closing 'Amen'; even so they don't lack any impact.

That said, the size of the choir is questionable from a historical point of view. In the first performance in Dublin Handel used a choir with sixteen trebles and sixteen adult singers. That seems a good indication of the common size of his choirs. From that angle it seems fair to say that Handel must have had a larger orchestra than Musica Fiorita in this recording, if only for reasons of balance. Dolci's four violins, two violas, cello and double bass, plus two trumpets, two oboes, bassoon and timpani would have been not enough. It is notable that Handel in his first performances in Dublin used only strings. For later performances in London he added two oboes and bassoon, but he also doubled the number of strings in the tutti. Obviously that is not the case here. Like in Niquet's performance, the trumpets are real natural trumpets, without unhistorical fingerholes. In 'The trumpet shall sound' the trumpet part is again played by Madeuf.

Although the performance is generally very good, as I have indicated, there are some issues which need to be mentioned. The soloists are generous in their addition of ornamentation, with the odd exception of 'Comfort ye', in which there is hardly any. However, the ornaments are not always entirely convincing. Raitis Grigalis adds a cadenza in 'The trumpet shall sound', but as there are hardly any cadenzas in other arias, this seems a bit arbitrary and inconsistent. The English pronunciation is not always unproblematic.

Even though some aspects of this performance are debatable from a historical point of view, I have enjoyed it very much. It is certainly one the most rhetorical and gestural performance I have heard over the years, and that goes especially for the choruses. In this account of Handel's masterwork the text is really in the centre of attention, as it should be. Because of the overall quality of singing and playing this disc belongs among the upper league in the catalogue.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Miriam Feuersinger
Sandrine Piau
Katherine Watson
Andreas Wolf
Le Concert Spirituel
Musica Fiorita

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