Messiah
~HWV 56~


Philips 434 695-2
2 CDs
full price
Recorded live in 1992
Originally issued in 1997


Philips DUO 470 044-2
2 CDs
budget price
Reissued in 2001

Sylvia McNair, soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Michael Chance, countertenor
Jerry Hadley, tenor
Robert Lloyd, bass

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (on modern instruments)
Conductor: Sir Neville Marriner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course Messiah requires little introduction. This live recording by Neville Marriner and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was made in a Dublin theatre in April 1992 (in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the first performance). However, it does not follow an authentic 1742 text (Malgoire's 1980 CBS Messiah, reissued by Sony, is the only effort to have come remotely close), and there is still a desperate need for an accurate first Dublin version to be added to the huge Messiah discography.

The performance here is not particularly "authentic" either, regardless of whether you like big or small choirs, modern or period instruments, or Joan Sutherland instead of Emma Kirkby. "Authenticity" is not just a fashionable label for gut string enthusiasts, but an issue that has to be used when the actual score notes are represented in a drastically erroneous way. We might expect this - and not mind it one bit - from Beecham & Co., but this recording was made only 10 years ago by respected artists with extensive specialist experience. Although this is not at all a bad Messiah to listen to. Tempos are all quite pleasant, choruses are nicely balanced, the modern instruments are not obtrusive and self-serving, and some of the soloists are excellent. But what about the bars added to the closing ritornello of "Ev'ry valley"? Or the frequent insertion of dotted rhythms wherever Marriner thinks Handel should have used them? Or the gratuitous use of appoggiaturas in the choral parts from start to finish? Even the penultimate phrase of the "Amen" chorus is crowned by a gloriously self-indulgent and anachronistic suspension that Handel did not put there and surely cannot have wanted. For such a traditional and reverent performance celebrating the anniversary of an institution, it is truly remarkable that so little trust is placed in what Handel actually wrote (quite apart from any further arguments about interpretation of what he therefore actually expected to hear). Bernard Jacobson's booklet note "Wishing to make them better" is a marvellous example of passing on received thinking without the benefit of hindsight, and excels in promoting old chestnuts that should have been exploded in the fire decades ago (and in some circles have been). Once upon a time it was fashionable to denigrate librettist Charles Jennens, but do we really have to put up with nonsense like the claim that he was a "literary amateur"? It even insinuates that  Jennens - who was educated at Balliol, Oxford, and edited Shakespeare - was some sort of lazy wealthy idiot who dared to criticise Handel's setting of a libretto that wasn't even really his own work (Jennens knew what he was doing with Saul and Belshazzar, and his perfectly valid criticisms of Handel's score did not touch upon any parts of Messiah Handelians would immediately associate with greatness). Such factors make this Messiah tiresome from a scholarly point of view, and the overall lack of depth and compassion in Marriner's performance leaves a casual listener with little lasting impression. A bit more historical accuracy and gravity would have gone a long way.

However, there are some fine moments, such as some lovely singing by Sylvia McNair (a delightful account of the 6/8 version of "Rejoice greatly") and Anne Sofie von Otter (a beautiful rendition of "He was despised"). When the two ladies join together for "He shall feed his flock" it makes all the negative aspects of this recording briefly disappear. Countertenor Michael Chance sings very well, but sounds a little uncomfortable with modern concert pitch in "But who may abide?". Bass Robert Lloyd is very loud, and brings a resonant darkness to his arias (the recitative "Behold I tell you a mystery" is particularly sensitive and mysterious). Tenor Jerry Hadley is also loud, but not really much else. It is easy for 21st century listeners to forget how crucial The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields were in bringing appropriate styles back to mainstream performances of 18th century music, and any ears used to period instruments cannot really have very much to complain about after they adjust to the slightly more traditional sound. Furthermore, unlike the more unpleasant choral sound Marriner produced on his popular recording of Mozart's Requiem at around the same date, the choir on this recording are generally very clean, bright, and focused. If you like Sylvia McNair and Anne Sofie von Otter, Marriner's Messiah is certainly worth buying now it has been reappeared on Philip's DUO label at budget price. But I would have felt cheated had I spent three times that amount of money on it a few months ago. Thank goodness for reissues.

David Vickers - January  2002


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