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George Frideric HANDEL: Messiah (HWV 56)

[I] La Chapelle Rhénane
Dir: Benoît Haller
rec: Oct 12 - 14, 2012 (live), Sceaux, Théâtre Les Gémeaux/Scène Nationale
K617 - K617243 (2 CDs) (© 2013) (2.22'49")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translation: F
Cover & track-list

Tanya Aspelmeier, Aurore Bucher, Stéphanie Révidat, soprano; Kathrin Hildebrandt, contralto; Julien Freymuth, Alessandro Giangrande, alto; Henning Kaiser, Sébastien Obrecht, François Rougier, tenor; Ekkehard Abele, Manfred Bittner, Matthieu Lécroart, baritone
Florian Léard, Gabriel Hétu, trumpet; Guillaume Humbrecht, Sophie Iwamura, Hélène Lacroix, Clémence Schaming, Diana Lee, Gabriel Ferry, violin; Gilles Deliège, Benjamin Lescoat, viola; Jean-Christophe Marq, cello; Élodie Peudepièce, double bass; Sébastien Wonner, harpsichord; Philippe Grisvard, organ; Alexandre Avolédo, timpani

[II] Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo-soprano; Ross Hauck, Ian Honeyman, tenor; Jeffrey Strauss, baritone
Apollo's Singers; Apollo's Fire (The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra)
Dir: Jeannette Sorrell
rec: Dec 12 & 13, 2008 (live), Dec 16 - 17, 2008 & Feb 8, 2010
AVIE - AV2280 (2 CDs; DVD) (© 2010) (2.12'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Barry Bauguess, Stanley Curtis, trumpet; Washington McClain, Debra Nagy, oboe; Marc Vallon, bassoon; Johanna Novom, Carrie Krause, Adriane Post, Emi Tanabe, Julie Andrijeski, Beth Wenstrom, Cheryl Trace, violin; Karina Fox, Kristen Linfante, viola; René Schiffer, Mimé Y. Brinkmann, cello; Sue Yelanjian, double bass; Jeannette Sorrell, harpsichord; Peter Bennett, harpsichord, organ; Matthew Bassett, timpani

[III] Karina Gauvin, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Rufus Müller, tenor; Brett Polegato, baritone
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Dir: Ivars Taurins
rec: Dec 2011 (live), Toronto, The Royal Conservatory (Koerner Hall)
Tafelmusik - TMK1016CD2 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (2.21'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

John Thiessen, Norman Engel, trumpet; John Abberger, Marco Cera, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; Christopher Verrette, Patricia Ahern, Aisslinn Nosky, Julia Wedman, Christina Zacharias, Geneviève Gilardeau, Emily Eng, Thomas Georgi, Erwin Huizinga, Elizabeth Loewen-Andrews, violin; Elly Winer, Patrick G. Jordan, Kathleen Kajioka, viola; Christina Mahler, Felix Deak, Margaret Gay, cello; Alison Mackay, double bass; Olivier Fortin, harpsichord; Charlotte Nediger, organ; David Campion, timpani


Among the large-scale vocal compositions by George Frideric Handel Messiah is undoubtedly the most frequently-performed. Its huge popularity goes back to the last decade of Handel's life and has been uninterrupted since. Soon after his death the number of singers and players involved in performances of Messiah grew continuously. This development reached its pinnacle in the last decades of the 19th century when performing forces of about 3,000 were no exception. The next century saw a growing demand for interpretations which were closer to Handel's intentions. Since the last decades of the 20th century it is quite common to perform Messiah with a chamber choir and a small orchestra, often playing on period instruments. However, in one respect performance practice in Handel's time is still largely ignored. Handel usually performed Messiah - according to the intentions of the librettist, Charles Jennens - during Lent. Today it is mostly performed during Advent. That being the case it seems appropriate to publish a review of three new recordings a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Comparing various recordings of Messiah is not such an easy task. One of the reasons is that there is no 'definitive' version. Handel himself conducted Messiah a number of times between 1742 and 1759, and he regularly adapted it to different circumstances. In 1991 Nicholas McGegan recorded the main available versions complete (Harmonia mundi, HMU 907050.52). In the booklet Eleanor Selfridge-Field lists nine different versions. Sorting out what all these versions exactly looked like is quite complicated. Today most performances and recordings are a mixture of elements from various versions. That is rather unsatisfying; one would wish conductors to make a clear choice for one version and stick to it. The recordings which are to be reviewed here are no exception to the rule, I'm afraid. It is disappointing that the whole issue of the various versions is ignored in the respective booklets. Those who purchase one of these recordings will inevitably be puzzled by some parts which are different from what they expect and are used to hear, or are even missing. Before assessing the three performances let me survey the differences between them.

There are few differences between Haller and Taurins; their recordings are most in line with what is probably the most common scoring. Taurins is different in two parts: the accompagnato He was cut off out of the land and the aria But thou didst not leave are usually sung by a tenor, such as in Haller's performance, but Taurins has given them to a soprano. This is probably based on the so-called 'Foundling Hospital version' of 1754; this alternative was not recorded by McGegan. His booklet curiously not even mentions this version which was recorded complete by Christopher Hogwood (Decca/l'Oiseau-Lyre, 1980). There are more deviations from common practice in Sorrell's recording. The aria But who may abide is sung by a bass instead of an alto as in the two other recordings. Thou art gone up on high is sung by a soprano; that scoring is also found in the 'Foundling Hospital version' of 1754. Questionable is the omission of three parts: the chorus Lift up your heads, the recitative Unto which of the angels and the chorus Let all the angels. There seems to be no version in which these parts are cut. Why Ms Sorrell has decided to omit them is anybody's guess.

Let us turn to the performances.
Benoît Haller's recording may be the most 'conventional' in regard to the vocal scoring, in other respects it is the most uncommon. The orchestra is rather small: six violins, two violas, cello, double bass, harpsichord and organ plus two trumpets and timpani. Oboes and bassoon are omitted. This can be justified by the fact that Handel only added them to his orchestra in the 1750s. An important aspect is the venue where the performance took place which was recorded for this release. A theatre seems not to be the most suitable venue for the performance of an oratorio because of its dry acoustic. Maybe Haller was inspired by the fact that Handel performed Messiah several times in Covent Garden theatre in London. However, it is impossible to be sure that the acoustical circumstances are comparable. The issue is not mentioned in the booklet. It lends this performance a strong amount of intimacy which is further emphasized by the size of the vocal ensemble which comprises just 12 singers who also perform the solo parts.

Basically a new approach to a well-known work is interesting and welcome as long as it is based on historical evidence. That seems not to be the case here. Moreover, the performance at large is rather disappointing. The acoustic has a pretty disastrous effect: the sound is dull and lacks depth and brilliance. That is especially obvious in the choruses. Despite the small size of the vocal ensemble these are not very transparent. That is not only due to the acoustic, but also to the vibrato, especially of the sopranos. This damages some of the arias and recitatives too. The ornamentation and cadenzas are sometimes questionable and a number of tempi are quite odd, mostly unnaturally slow. And, if that is not enough, the English pronunciation is anything but perfect.

That comes immediately to the fore in the opening recitative, Comfort ye, sung by Sébastien Obrecht. His attempts to express the text in the ensuing aria Ev'ry valley are not very convincing; the cadenza is inappropriate. And the glory of the Lord is an example of a chorus which is damaged by the pretty heavy vibrato of the sopranos. Julien Freymuth sings But who may abiderather well, although his voice is a bit weak which is especially problematic in the B part: "For he is a refiner's fire". The recitative Behold, a virgin shall conceive and the aria O thou that tellest are performed by different singers, which is quite odd. The recitative is taken by Kathrin Hildebrand who combines a weak voice with a heavy vibrato. The aria is sung by Alessandro Giangrande: he doesn't do too badly, but the expression is restricted. The accompanied recitative For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, sung by Manfred Bittner, is ridiculously slow. The following aria, The people that walked in darkness is awkward and dull; the rhythmic pulse is underexposed. That is also the case in the chorus For unto us a child is born and the pifa.
Stéphanie Révidat is one of the better soloists; she sings Rejoice greatly pretty well. However, Kathrin Hildebrand and Aurore Bucher don't make much of He shall feed his flock, partly due to their horrible vibrato. He was despised doesn't come off well; Alessandro Giangrande isn't very expressive and the orchestral playing is bland. The dramatic flow of the tenor solos in the second part is broken up because of the involvement of various singers. They sing their parts pretty well; especially Henning Kaiser is quite good here. Why do the nations is rather feeble, due to Ekkehard Abele's lack of power. The second part ends with one of the strangest performances of the Halleluja chorus I have ever heard. It begins in an unnaturally slow tempo and suddenly speeds up towards the end. I know that my redeemer liveth is spoiled by the vibrato of Aurore Bucher; the performance is dull, partly due to the slow tempo. Matthieu Lécroart gives a reasonably good performance of The trumpet shall sound; once again the cadenza is out of place.

On the whole the performance directed by Jeannette Sorrell is much better. Her orchestra is hardly larger than Haller's: just one more violin and two cellos instead of one. She also uses two oboes and a bassoon. The more energetic playing and the far better acoustical circumstances make much difference in comparison to Haller's performance. Another difference is the choir: Sorrell's is twice as large and of a substantially better quality. The choruses are much more satisfying and make a more lasting impression than in Haller's recording. The soloists are generally better than those of La Chapelle Rhénane, although Amanda Forsyth is disappointing.

The recording dates suggest that the live performances have been corrected at a later date. This could probably explain that two tenors are involved. Ross Hauck opens the proceedings with a rather good interpretation of Comfort ye; the ornament on "comfort ye" is quite odd, though, and so are the strong tempo fluctuations in the orchestra. Ross sings the aria Ev'ry valley also quite well, but his vibrato is disappointing, and we have again an inappropriate cadenza here. Jeffrey Strauss sings But who may abide very well; he is also good in The trumpet shall sound, except the awful cadenza at the end. Very good is the contrast in the first line of The people that walked in darkness: "The people that walked in darkness - have seen a great light". Behold, a virgin shall conceive and O thou that tellest are nicely sung by Elizabeth Shammash. He was despised is marred by too much vibrato; Ms Shammash sings not without expression, but tends a little to the pathetic. The tempo of this aria is very good. Amanda Forsythe doesn't sing Rejoice greatly too badly, but there is too little expression; the extreme slowing down towards the end of the B part - "he shall speak peace" - is exaggerated. How beautiful are the feet is damaged by her wide vibrato. Ian Honeyman has a good sense of the dramatic character of the tenor solos in the second part, but he greatly exaggerates, especially in Thy rebuke has broken his heart and He that dwelleth in heaven.

I heard Taurin's recording last, and on balance I found it the most satisfying of the three. In this case that isn't a real virtue: there is little which gets on one's nerves, but there is also little to get excited about. One could describe it as "middle of the road". The orchestra is considerably larger than the other two: ten violins, three violas, three cellos, double bass, harpsichord, organ, plus two oboes, bassoon, two trumpets and timpani. The choir is comparable in size to Sorrell's (24 vs 23). The singing and playing is generally rather good, although I found some of the choruses lacklustre. As far as the soloists are concerned, it is again the soprano who is largely disappointing.

One of the highlights is He was despised, magnificently sung by Robin Blaze. It is the most expressive of the three performances. However, I find the tempo too slow (11'26" vs 8'56" in Sorrell's performance), and the B part lacks bite. Thou art gone up on high is beautifully sung. So is But who may abide; the B part - "For he is like a refiner's fire" - is rather feeble, though. Disappointing is He shall feed his flock, because Robin Blaze and Karina Gauvin have completely different styles of singing. They just don't match, and it is a matter of good luck that they don't have to sing together. Rufus Müller is a little disappointing in Ev'ry valley: he sings with much expression, but too much vibrato. His cadenza is discreet and therefore exactly right. In Comfort ye he doesn't ornament "comfort"; the extreme slowing down of the tempo is ill-judged. Müller is excellent in Part 2: like Honeyman he pays much attention to the dramatic character of his part, but never exaggerates. Brett Polegato has a nice voice and is especially impressive in The trumpet shall sound, but the cadenza is again less appropriate. Karina Gauvin is the only disappointing factor as far as the soloists are concerned. She is too operatic, for instance in Rejoice greatly; her performance lacks expression. I know that my redeemer liveth is relatively well done, but not really satisfying. How beautiful are the feet is artificial, and too little attention is given to the text. Lift up your heads is one example of a chorus which is bland and lacks spirit and energy.

It doesn't make sense to appoint a 'winner' here. These recordings are no direct rivals as there are so many interpretations in the catalogue to choose from. Haller's performance is the one with most and most serious weaknesses. Sorrell's recording has many good things to offer; the omission of some parts is a serious flaw, though. Taurins is solid and has some strong assets. However, none of these recordings belong to the upper class.

N.B. Thanks to Matthew Westphal for some useful information regarding the various versions.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Robin Blaze
Amanda Forsyth
Karina Gauvin
Ross Hauck
Rufus Müller
Brett Polegato
Elizabeth Shammash
Apollo's Fire
La Chapelle Rhénane

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