~HWV 56~

ABC Classics 4726012
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2002.

Sara Macliver, soprano
Alexandra Sherman, mezzo-soprano
Christopher Field, countertenor
Paul McMahon, tenor
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, bass

Cantillation (choir)
Orchestra of the Antipodes (on period instruments)
Conductor: Antony Walker

- Recorded in St Patricks Chapel, Manly in Sydney, Australia



What, another Messiah? One might well ask what the possible justification for another recording could be, although there are lots of possible responses. In this case, the most obvious claim on one’s attention is that this is the first Australian recording of the complete work. It is also a noticeably young recording: the soloists, individual choristers, and players are all young, and the chorus and orchestra are relatively new outfits. They are also good, and this is a recording which can be recommended on its merits alone.

This is an historically oriented performance, which is to say it embodies a pretty much standard modern approach: not just period instruments, but also small forces (25 choral singers, 23 players) and an informed scholarly approach to the text and music. The chosen form of the oratorio is likewise generally similar to most modern versions, with one rather startling exception. According to the notes, the basis is the 1741 autograph with variations according to those sanctioned by Handel in subsequent performances. These include the alto arias written for Guadagni in 1750, the 1743 version of “Rejoice greatly”, the double aria version (soprano, mezzo-soprano) of “He shall feed his flock”, and the aria-chorus arrangement of “How beautiful are the feet … Their sound is gone out”.

The significant difference is not commented on in the notes. When Messiah is considered as a dramatic work, it is generally agreed that its pivot is the shift from the despair of the Passion to the triumphant optimism of the Resurrection with its message of redemption for all. This is signaled by the deep misery of “He was cut off from the land of the living” followed by the uplift of “But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell”. This recitative-aria cluster follows another (“Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” – “Behold, and see”). Modern practice usually attributes the first cluster to tenor, and the second to soprano or tenor. In this case however the tenor sings the first recitative-aria grouping, then the next recitative, then the soprano sings “But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell”. This will probably be anathema to purists, necessitating as it does a musical gearshift. It does however have a powerful dramatic impact, lifting the music at this point to emphasize the narrative message of redemption and fundamental change in mood.

Apart from that, there is little to quibble with musically. Dotted rhythms are observed, and tempi tend toward the brisk without being too sprightly, as is heard immediately in the overture. The chorus is impressively disciplined, although not terribly strong in the lower ranges; perhaps this is a function of their overall youth. Generally speaking they sound stronger when singing in four-part unison than in separate parts. This is also possibly causing a certain lack of gravitas in the slower choruses, while the lighter and faster ones such us “For unto us a child is born” are suitably sprightly.

The soloists are the real strength of this recording. Sara Macliver is arguably the best lyric soprano currently singing in Australia, definitely in this repertoire. Her basic natural instrument is a thing of considerable beauty in itself, with a bloom and lustre across its range. It is allied with deep musical understanding and taste which is apparent in every task she undertakes. Every note is achieved cleanly, and vibrato is used as an aid to expressive ornamentation at appropriate moments, all combined with patent feeling and expression. Alexandra Sherman has a rich mezzo edging towards contralto voice with good control, although she seems a little uncertain in the coloratura in her first aria (“O thou that tallest”), but is suitably affecting in “He was despised”. Christopher Field is a very promising and very young countertenor whose voice has a lovely sweetness without the brassy tone or hootiness often found in this voice type; he also falters a little in the demanding coloratura of “But who may abide”. Paul McMahon has an excellent tenor for oratorio singing, smooth and even without much sign of Italianate squillo. He does perhaps rather over-ornament the opening accompagnato, “Comfort ye my people”. New Zealand bass Teddy Tahu Rhodes is fast becoming bass of choice in a wide range of operatic repertoire, and this recording shows why. Assured and resonant, he declaims “Thus saith the Lord” with authority, palpably brings light to the darkness in “The people that walked”, and delivers “The trumpet shall sound” in fine ringing tones and confident passage work. It can also be observed that the diction of everyone concerned is exemplary. Only, and perhaps appropriately, in “All we like sheep” can a slight hint of Australian vowel sounds be detected (although a Messiah in true Australian voice might be interesting).

This recording is also available in DVD form that is happily complete (a Christmas Eve television broadcast of it was not). It can be said to provide a further dimension, as the soloists are a handsome bunch. It is released without regional coding, but is in PAL format, which limits its appeal for North America or Japan. Optional subtitles are provided only in English and only for the first line of each piece. Special features consist of a series of interviews with the conductor, soloists, Anna McDonald the leader of the Orchestra of the Antipodes (who has some interesting observations about HIP* playing), and Erin Helyard the harpsichordist.

On balance, this is a really worthwhile recording that can take its place next to most modern Messiah versions without special pleading, finally lacking only the divine spark which would lift it to the sphere of the sublime.

© Sandra Bowdler - January 2003

*HIP = historically informed performance

Return to the G. F. Handel Home Page