~ HWV 56 ~

Sony BMG DHM 82876-72039-2
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2005.

Christine Schäfer, soprano
Anna Larsson, alto
Michael Schade, tenor
Gerald Finley, bass

Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Concentus musicus Wien (on period instruments)
Director: Nikolaus Harnoncourt





Messiah is a unique testimony to Christian faith, and exhibits two of Handel’s finest musical traits: an unfailing sense of musical sequencing with contrasted mood settings and communicating its message with uncluttered musical declamation. Any recording worth its salt will highlight these elements. Harnoncourt’s new recording has his eccentric stamp all over. This conductor seems to think the oratorio is in need of ‘help’. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century literary critic, unlike Harnoncourt, well understood the nature of Handel’s colossal intellect when he wrote that ‘praise of Handel is not the effusion of credulity, but the emanation of Science’. In other words, Handel’s music deserves our greatest attention, for God’s hand is revealed in its laboured and beautiful forms: the music is therefore to be trusted. It seems that our maestro isn’t convinced by Handel’s music and instructions. So, if the sung melodic line appears ‘empty’, fill it with ornamentation (where is the evidence that Handel’s singers ornamented repeat sections in oratorio da capos?) and vary the continuo section without the composer’s authority. And though stillness in this music is a powerful dramatic tool, because Harnoncourt doesn’t do stillness the quietest and most restrained passages in this recording are limply ineffectual.

Concentus Musicus begins the overture promisingly with beautiful poise and none of the frog-skipping of some original instrument bands. Harnoncourt recognizes that the overture’s two movements set the ‘scene’, with a second movement that has a banal hustle and bustle which is quelled by the tenor’s promise of ‘Comfort’. Michael Schade sings an earnest ‘Comfort’, which he colours in Presbyterian martinet mode with emphatics on ‘Saith your God’. ‘And the Glory’ is not sufficiently soothing: while the words breathe reassurance, the performance does not. The final declaration, ‘Hath spoken it’, is oddly weak, though the choral parts are generally well defined, with some strongly attacking entries. Gerald Finley hams his expression by lots of vigorous shaking on ‘suddenly’, and his interpretation gives little sense of awe and wonder at the promise of the Lord’s coming and imminent glory. ‘The People that walked in Darkness’ is chopped into small segments, diminishing the promise of light and salvation.

Anna Larsson has a lovely voice for ‘But who may abide’, but if this oratorio is to strike the listener with the force that Handel intended, all singers, including the chorus, must act with their voice, as Mrs Cibber the first contralto singer famously did. (Is that an organ accompaniment in ‘But who may abide’?) ‘And he shall purify’ has strange choral crescendos and diminuendos, and its purpose, to tell us why Messiah shall purify the Sons of Levi, is lost. As if making empty gestures towards musicology, there are many delayed cadences in accompanied and secco recitatives, which is irritating and mannered. Organ accompaniment in secco recitative is unpleasant; in the air ‘O thou that tellest’ its effect is awful, while in many airs Concentus Musicus fails to play convincing string counter-melodies. Occasionally, the bass line instruments are thinned in number for no apparent reason. And what is the justification for silencing the harpsichord for much of the oratorio? When the chorus enters on ‘For unto us a Child’ it does so to a strange staccato accompaniment, with lots of melting away of volume at the end of the suspended chords, which is counter-intuitive and undramatic, as for example on ‘Prince of Peace’. For no apparent reason, this marvellous chorus gets a reduced string section. And it is plain perverse, as well as unauthorized, to bring in the whole string section only when the textural declamation is firmly chordal, i.e. ‘Wonderful’. And there’s more than a hint of acceleration.

The ‘Pastoral’ interlude is given in its authentic shortened version, but the organ again intrudes into the succeeding recitatives; all far too precious. Christine Schäfer has a fine voice and tells her story with effective zeal. ‘And suddenly there was with the Angel’ zips along, as does the chorus ‘Glory to God’. But the orchestral sound vanishes long before Handel’s instructions tell it to. Schäfer does well in ‘He shall speak Peace’, communicating God’s guarantee with refreshing vitality: in Messiah singers should be prepared to ‘preach’ with personal commitment through their singing of the Word. ‘And the Tongue of the Dumb shall sing’ is dreadful because peppered with affected pauses. ‘His Yoke is easy’ is the finest sung chorus on the disc: it is airy, encouraging, and affirming---until the final adagio, that is, when all goes to pot.

The two-CD format of the recording thankfully gives Messiah ‘complete’ and does not split between two discs the magnificent choral sequence at the beginning of Part 2. Harnoncourt gets his choir to deliver clear sounds in ‘Behold the Lamb’, but he is unsympathetic to Handel’s accumulation of energy in the series of choral entries, so that no story is unfolded and the narrative is dissipated by an interpretation that obfuscates Handel’s wonderful art. What should be a heartfelt appeal in ‘He was despis’d’, becomes a depressing wail because of a stodgy organ accompaniment. The singing does have character, but Harnoncourt seems baffled by the role of Handel’s minimal string accompaniments. The loud staccato chords for ‘He gave his Back’ detract from the words, and organ suddenly gives way to harpsichord. Why? The pathos of the A section is insufficiently contrasted with the horror and admiration of Christ’s heroic qualities in the B section. There is even ornamentation in the strings: dire.

‘Surely he hath borne’ is taken too fast and is unconvincing because there is no sense of distress. Harnoncourt introduces rubato to ‘help’ the music along. The result is, frankly, dreadful. ‘And with his Stripes’ is bizarre: the incongruous choral emphatics it is given break apart Handel’s marvellous choral layering; the continuo line falls inexplicably silent for a few bars; and the chorus is permitted to ‘ornament’. ‘And the Lord’ plods, Handel’s judicious expression of the weight of shame robbed of its gravitas.  Yet all is not lost, for ‘All they that see him’ is delicately rendered, and music’s finest representation of a sceptical crowd, ‘He trusted in God’, gets requisite snarl and snipe. Schade and Finley prove capable of acting admirably with their singing voice. However, ‘But thou didst not leave’ is hampered by a muddy mix of organ and harpsichord keyboard continuo. The lovely siciliano ‘How Beautiful’ is lumbered with an oboe in the ripieno string section. Yet among much dross served up by this recording, ‘Why do the Nations’ is a triumph of vocal expression. But, as if to cap the nonsense already endured, ‘Hallelujah’, I kid you not, begins as a sort of lilting lullaby, while the gentle ‘The Kingdom of this World’ is blustered. ‘Hallelujah’ is a hodgepodge of varied speed, muffled attack, and mangled sense.

‘I know that my Redeemer’ is the composer’s finest example of declamatory expression of personal faith. The singer must act with the voice, and Schäfer does well, with the exception of some unpleasant ornamentation. Harnoncourt’s growling organ accompaniment hampers Schäfer’s attempt at meaningful expression. Then Finley truly lets us into ‘a Mystery’, and gives full force to the heroic air ‘The Trumpet shall sound’, with, would you believe it, Handel’s own idiosyncratic usage, ‘incorrupTIBle’. Splendid stuff, until Finley goes off message with anomalous ornamentation. There’s a nifty cut in the B section, for some reason. Of the performance of the duet ‘O Death’, the least said the better. The haste with which ‘But Thanks be to God’ is taken destroys the heartfelt beauty of this ecstatic E major chorus that contemplates death’s defeat through Christ. ‘If God be for us’ employs Handel’s original verbal setting: good; and Schäfer sings ‘It is Christ that died’ beautifully. There’s an odd double-dot effect on ‘Worthy is theLamb’, and though the choir is excellently crisp when singing unaccompanied, they end this chorus on a muted and restrained chord that is quite contrary to the glory implicit in the words. The ‘Amen’ chorus is satisfactory.

There are many first-rate recordings of Messiah, but this is not one of them. Harnoncourt’s Messiah is unsatisfying and occasionally maddening, with few outstanding moments. It is unworthy of composer, Messiah, and arguably Harnoncourt. Avoid.

© Les Robarts - February 2006

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