~HWV 056~
(1752 Version 1. Edition by Donald Burrows)

Argo/Decca 440 672-2
2 CDs
mid price (?)
Reissued: 2002
Originally released: 1994
Recorded: 12/1992 - 3/1993

Lynne Dawson, soprano
Hilary Summers, contralto
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
Alastair Miles, bass

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge
The Brandenburg Consort (on period instruments)
Conductor: Stephen Cleobury





In the very first bars of the overture this recording promises a Messiah with no gimmicky tempos and no excitement. Part 1 begins unpromisingly. The busy-ness of the second movement, for instance, is played rather calmly, failing to convey its worldly bustle. Stephen Cleobury doesn’t bring off the tenor ‘interruption’, essential to give “Comfort ye” any sense of consolation. John Mark Ainsley’s decoration in this accompanied recitative irritates because it takes attention away from the words, an unforgivable solecism in Messiah. But how is one to sing as if new much loved phrases of music? My preference is for the faintest touch of vocal originality; best to sing the notes as given and rely on expression to achieve much of Messiah’s superlative power.


This is not a dramatic Messiah: the darkness that the people are walking in isn’t sufficiently gloomy and the bass Alastair Miles does not convince me that the light has dawned on them. Messiah’s verbal promises are crucial to its meaning, and the bass soloist must ensure that “will” and “shall” are properly emphasised if his “Thus saith the Lord” accompanied recitative is to have its required musical and theological effect. Miles doesn’t give these words their requisite force, and, unwisely, he decorates non-da capo numbers. Lynne Dawson’s belated entry, however, is worth waiting for. Her bright soprano in “Rejoice greatly” with its ethereal delivery really does “speak peace”. From her entry on the whole performance improves.            


Bringing conviction to Handel’s meditation on Christ’s Passion in Part 2 is one of the most testing passages in all music -  not because of its complexity (it is remarkably ‘simple’ music), but for the way in which each number relates to all the others in an essentially narrative context extending over about 52 minutes of concerted music-making. Part 2 is what Messiah is all about; the rewards brought about by Christ’s suffering make us shout “Hallelujah” at its end. Each number contemplates an aspect of human frailty, our sorrow, our cynicism, our waywardness, and then asserts our means of rescue from despair. Hilary Summers’ “He was despised” is not heart-broken enough, and in the repeat (this is Messiah’s first vocal da capo) the orchestra echoes her ‘spontaneous’ decorations: a nonsense. Ainsley’s singing in Part 2, by contrast, communicates sharply the torment it describes, tugging at our sympathies. It is his belief in the situation that makes his performance in Part 2 much more forceful. “But thou didst not leave” (soprano in 1752) enables the promise of relief to break through into the anguish of the Passion. When you listen to Dawson here, you surely must “Lift up your Heads”. Miles delivers “Why do the Nations” (in its shortened version) with an appropriately venomous frustration.


“I know that my Redeemer liveth” begins Part 3 with Dawson providing an eloquent simplicity in a moving rendering where every note and word counts. She adopts a narrative style of singing in which she tells us of Christ’s Resurrection from among “them that sleep”. “The Trumpet shall sound” and the duet “O Death” convey a suitable taunting of death which is then carried forward into the chorus giving thanks for victory. The greatest disappointment in what in so many ways is a fine Messiah is the treatment afforded “If God be for us”. What should be a reassuring unison violin accompanied song preaching of the adamantine strength of God’s protection is played as a chamber cantata, with solo violin and continuo accompaniment. Though the singing is unerring the violin embellishes its part: another nonsense.


The all-male King’s College choir is matchless in this music, taking particular pleasure in Handel’s vigorous polyphony, giving it a solicitous yet airy translucence. This choir sings as if all choruses were conversation pieces, each vocal line communicating with the others. The immediacy and belief in what is sung, the distinct diction, the clarity of the counterpoint, and the true ensemble singing make King’s Choir the greatest asset of this recording. It agonises in “And with His Stripes” and then injects a decidedly secular energy into the vacuous divisions of “All we like Sheep”. With a peerless musical conviction the choir makes us feel Christ’s bearing of our iniquities. The choir’s derision and scoffing in one of Handel’s finest fugal choruses, “He trusted in God”, is overwhelming and come across, as it should, as from a mocking mob. In Handel’s ‘urban’ music depicting the multitude of preachers the precision of the choral singing makes this number especially convincing, and “Their Sound is gone out” is sung with evangelical fervour. “His Yoke is easy” is a model of choral brightness, the choir making sense of why it rejoices, an aspect neglected in too many recordings.

Cleobury’s speeds are well judged. As far as I can hear the orchestra picks out each nuance, sensitively accompanying the voices, but despite the recording engineer’s claims in his lengthy booklet notes, the string sound is self-effacing, the voices too far forward for all the string parts to be heard distinctly. There are more dramatic recordings of Messiah than this one, but they generally fall short in their religious commitment and a sense of the whole ‘idea’ of Messiah in its tripartite structure. This recording overall, despite its aggravations, is as good a Messiah as you are likely to get for many a year. Its choral singing is unlikely to be surpassed, and it is refreshing to hear a recording of the only authentic version that Handel prepared for a conventional quartet of soloists.

© Les Robarts - September 2002

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