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

Gillian Keith, soprano; Daniel Taylor, alto; Tom Randle, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone
Handel and Haydn Society
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: Nov 29 - Dec 1, 2013, Boston, Symphony Hall
Coro - COR16125 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.15'17")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

This is the third commercial recording of Handel's Messiah directed by Harry Christophers. In 2007 he recorded it with his own ensemble The Sixteen (Coro, 2008). The present recording was made to mark the bicentennial of the Handel and Haydn Society, founded in Boston in 1815. A performance of this work makes sense as it has been one of the pillars in the Society's existence. The very first public concert ended with the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah, and in 1818 the Society was responsible for the first complete performance of this work in the United States. The booklet includes a survey of the ensemble's history and its regular performances of this oratorio. In the early 1970s the performances showed some awareness of the emerging historical performance practice when the size of the choir was reduced. Later it started to use period instruments and especially under the helm of Christopher Hogwood the principles of historical performance practice became a prominent feature of the concerts of the Handel and Haydn Society.

I can't remember having heard any of Hogwood's recordings of vocal music with this ensemble. I would like to know to what extent he was able to communicate these principles to the singers he worked with, in particular those who were no specialists in early music. That is especially interesting in the light of recordings under the direction of Hogwood's successor, Harry Christophers. The best thing is to book singers who have specialised in early music, but that is probably not always possible. If that is the case it is a director's job to make them sing in the style of the time. Either Christophers doesn't manage to do that or he doesn't care. The soloists are no specialists in early music, except Daniel Taylor. Most of them have sung with early music ensembles and conductors, such as William Christie and René Jacobs. Unfortunately that doesn't tell us that much as there are quite a number of early music specialists who think that there is no fundamental difference between 'period' and 'traditional' singing. Too often the principles of early music singing are violated in recordings.

One of the features of traditional singing is the use of an incessant vibrato. That is present here in abundance in the singing of Gillian Keith and Tom Randle which is hardly surprising. What is more surprising is that the choir also sings with a lot of vibrato which really spoils the choruses in Messiah. That especially goes for the more intimate items and those in a rather slow tempo. The Hallelujah chorus and the closing Amen are examples of parts of this work which have been done rather well. However, in both cases Christophers makes a strong crescendo at the end which seems to me rather pointless. It is almost to invoke the rapturous applause from the audience - which indeed follows. Tasteless.

The contributions of the soloists are generally disappointing, and often even quite horrible. Whatever the virtues of the singing of Gillian Keith and Tom Randle may be, these are overshadowed and nullified by their incessant wide vibrato. To that one has to add that the ornamentation is sometimes debatable, not only in the way it is applied but also where it is added and why any ornamentation is omitted in other places. There seems little consistency in this department. The ornament on "shame" in He was despised and rejected seems to me rather pointless. Daniel Taylor is by far the most stylish singer, and this aria is one of the better parts of this recording. However, his performances lack in expression, and this aria's B part and the aria But who may abide are too harmless.

The fact that Taylor largely avoids vibrato contributes to the dichotomy of this performance of Messiah. How can any conductor accept that the first part of He shall feed his flock is sung virtually without vibrato and the second part by a heavily fluttering soprano? In the duet O Death, where is thy sting Taylor and Randle don't match very well. The tenor accompagnato Thy rebuke hath broken his heart is rather pathetic and not as declamatory as it should be. Sumner Thompson is somewhere in the middle between Taylor on the one hand and Keith and Randle on the other. His vibrato is not too extensive and he sings generally pretty well. The people that walked in darkness is given a differentiated interpretation and Why do the nations and The trumpet shall sound come off reasonably well. Even so, his vibrato is out of place and I also have to say that I find his interpretations a bit bland. They don't make a lasting impression.

The orchestral playing is largely bland and often dynamically flat. The sinfony which opens the piece is a telling example. In the more dramatic episodes the orchestra is most convincing but the more quite episodes lack profile. The Pastoral symphony is disappointing as Christophers tries to do too much. It is marred by odd dynamic accents and changes in articulation which break up the siciliano rhythm which has to be kept from start to finish.

This recording includes some nice moments. But overall this is a rather poor performance, uninspired and uninspiring. It also compromises some of the basic principles of historical performance practice. The use of period instruments is pretty useless if in the style of singing some fundamental period principles are violated.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Gillian Keith
Daniel Taylor
Handel and Haydn Society

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