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

Lucy Crowe, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Andrew Staples, tenor; Christopher Purves, bass
Le Concert d'Astrée Choeur et Orchestre
Dir: Emmanuelle Haïm

rec: Dec 4 - 7, 2013, Lille, Opéra
Erato - 0825646240555 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.15'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D/F
Cover & track-list

This recording of Handel's Messiah is reviewed during Lent which is not the time this work is usually performed in our time. But that was exactly the time of the year that Handel performed his oratorio in the 1750s. It was the time Messiah rapidly grew in popularity. That was very different in the first decade after its composition. It received a warm welcome in Dublin where the first performance took place in April 1742, but the reception in London was lukewarm. The fact that the performances took place in the theatre didn't help to win over the sceptics. About ten years later the situation had changed and Handel performed his oratorio every year, mainly for charity. As was common at the time he adapted his work to the changing circumstances, for instance the availability of singers. This explains that Messiah has been preserved in various versions "[which] leaves us today with an embarrassment of riches but a fundamental dilemma - ten authoritative versions of Messiah, but no one definitive way to perform it", as Simon Heighes puts it in his liner-notes. Emmanuelle Haïm follows the edition of John Tobin which is based on two performances in Holy Week 1752 under Handel's direction at Covent Garden Theatre. The airs 'But who may abide' and 'Thou art gone up on high' are scored for alto, 'He shall feed his flock' is sung here as a duet of soprano and alto and also included is the chorus 'Their sound is gone out', which is omitted in many recordings.

Emmanuelle Haïm often comes up with performances which divide the critics. I have heard some good things and some very bad performances. One of the worst was the 'Baroque Feast' whose performances hardly deserved that title. It was rather a festival of horrors, including a dreadful performance of the 'Hallelujah' chorus from Messiah, sung as an encore with the participation of the audience, would you believe. Here she can correct the errors of her ways, and in various aspects she does so quite well here, although this performance of Messiah has some serious flaws.

That especially concerns the choruses. First of all she allows the singers to use some vibrato - not very wide, but enough to make the choruses less transparent and the text less clearly audible than would be ideal. Especially the dynamics are problematic. In the 'Hallelujah' chorus she creates a wide dynamic contrast between the various "Hallelujah" entrances. I can't think of any justification for that. Some choruses end with a crescendo for which I can't see any reason. It seems more romantic than baroque to me. And why are the words "delight in Him" (He trusted in God) sung staccato? The closing "Amen" is sung rather slowly, which I find utterly unconvincing.

The contributions of the soloists are a matter of hit and miss, I'm afraid. The use of a sometimes incessant vibrato, especially from Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead, belong to the latter category. It damages the often quite good interpretations of their arias. I have heard Lucy Crowe in various recordings, several of which I enjoyed, but here I find her use of vibrato annoying and out of place. It really bothers me in, for instance, 'Rejoice greatly'. The ornamentation is also rather overdone, and sometimes ill-judged. That is a feature of this recording as a whole: in some cases the wrong ornaments are sung at the wrong place. In the second half of the duet 'He shall feed his flock' Ms Crowe sings a virtuosic coloratura on "rest", but that is at odds with what this line says: "and ye shall find rest unto your souls". That requires restraint rather than an excessive ornamentation. However, Ms Crowe also delivers one of this recording's highlights: 'I know that my redeemer liveth' is magnificent and very moving.

Recently I heard Tim Mead in a concert of the Netherlands Bach Society; there was hardly a hint of the vibrato he uses here. If he can do without, why doesn't he here? It undermines for instance the recitative 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive' and the ensuing aria 'O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion'. Very beautiful is the closing line "ad gently lead those that are with young" in the duet 'He shall feed his flock'. There are some misjudged ornaments in his solos too, but not in 'He was despised' which receives an incisive performance, although slightly damaged by his vibrato.

Christopher Purves is generally very good. 'The people that walked in darkness' includes the phrase "that dwell in the shadow of death" which he sings with a dark-coloured and almost muted voice which is very appropriate. 'Why do the nations so furiously rage together' is brilliantly sung and 'The trumpet shall sound' also comes off very well. The contrast in 'Behold, I tell you a mystery' is effectively realised. The tenor has a relatively small part in Messiah, but has the honour of opening the work. The accompanied recitative 'Comfort ye' and the aria 'Ev'ry valley' are nicely sung by Andrew Staples. He is too bland and detached in the accompanied recitative 'Thy rebuke hath broken his heart' and the next pieces, but does well in the aria 'But thou didst not leave'.

Some choruses are taken at considerable speed, but I don't consider that a problem. The main flaws are the use of vibrato and the application of ornamentation in the solos and the questionable treatment of dynamics in some choruses. There are excellent moments here, in particular some of the arias as I have mentioned above. On balance this recording leaves me rather unsatisfied as it seems to lack logic and consistency. Fortunately there are many - probably too many - alternatives to choose from. I would prefer a recording which strictly follows one of Handel's own performances. It would also be nice to hear Messiah in historical pronunciation.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Tim Mead
Christopher Purves
Andrew Staples
Le Concert d'Astrée

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