~HWV 56~

EMI 7 49801 2
Recorded in 1988.
Released in 1989.

Virgin Veritas 5 61330 2
Reissued in 1996.

Virgin Veritas 5620042
2 CDs
budget price
Reissued in 2002.

Emma Kirkby (soprano I)
Emily Van Evera (soprano II)
Margaret Cable (alto)
James Bowman (countertenor)
Joseph Cornwell (tenor)
David Thomas (bass)

The Taverner Choir & Players (on period instruments)
Director: Andrew Parrott












Andrew Parrott's The Taverner Consort is arguably the finest and most versatile of the best English ensembles that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Parrott's current lack of a regular recording contract is the single biggest disaster in the modern 'Early Music' recording industry, and it is ironic that many 'Early Music' conductors who have become prominent during the last decade owe an enormous amount to Parrott's work, yet have rarely improved upon his sense of musical architecture, good taste, and genuine musicological knowledge. Parrott's Israel in Egypt and Dixit Dominus remain the benchmark recordings for many Handelians despite more recent versions, in addition to his acclaimed pioneering work in Tallis, Gabrieli, Monteverdi, and Bach.

Despite perhaps sounding 'English' at times, Parrott's performances have always been characterized by solid research, astute and tasteful musical direction, and, quite simply, the most superb standards of performance. Of course, common sense dictates that Messiah is not a work that suffers from being a little bit English. The Taverner Choir & Players recording of Messiah is a succession of marvellous bright and clean choruses. It is possible to listen to Messiah recordings that have better soloists or more striking accounts of any particular popular highlight, but Parrott directs a performance that draws a listener through the entire work without shortchanging the oratorio's overall concept. It is a joy to listen to a Messiah performance that is both refreshingly complete and completely refreshing. Originally released on EMI, this has been available in a reissued form on Virgin Veritas for several years at mid-price. Now it has been reissued again at budget price. It is good for the consumer that Virgin Veritas are willing to reissue so much of their excellent back catalogue at a very cheap price, but it is a shame that costs are cut by omitting the documentation that made the original EMI Reflexe issues particularly impressive.

It is an even greater shame that such manipulation of the archives is not being consolidated with the commission of enough high quality projects to match the glory days of the 80s and early 90s - and this Messiah shows how glorious EMI Reflexe could be, and how far Virgin's parent company have fallen in artistic integrity during the last decade. While it is true that none of the big name soloists such as Kirkby, Bowman, and Thomas are on their best or most memorable form here (Kirkby and Thomas were particularly outstanding on Hogwood's groundbreaking Decca recording made in 1980), their contributions are efficient, stylish, and - above all - they elucidate the text to exquisite perfection. Ornamentation of da capos is minimal, but Handel's music for Messiah can stand subtlety and good taste once in a while. The late John Toll's harpsichord playing is a particularly outstanding feature, as is the typically brilliant and elegant trumpet playing of Crispian Steele-Perkins.

The Taverner Choir and Players contribute thoughtful and vibrant textures that are both beautiful and powerful (the brass sections in "Worthy the Lamb" are especially thrilling). This Messiah has no starlets, and its unified team performance is considerably greater than the sum of its finely judged parts. This Messiah is not one to dip into for excerpts, but should be listened to in its entirety and cherished as a triumph of mature musicianship and sensitive interpretation over superficial novelty. Parrott's performance was already one of the finest in the catalogue for those wanting a stylish historically aware version free of interpretative nonsense, and now at bargain price it is without doubt the best Messiah available. Serious Handel collectors should not be without it, and those with a less developed interest in Handel who only want one recording of Messiah on CD ought to give this bargain reissue serious consideration.

David Vickers - June 2002

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