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Handel: Messiah (Messiah Refreshed!)

Various; National Youth Choir of Great Britain; RPO/Jonathan Griffiths (Signum Classics)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Messiah Refreshed – Messiah (Ed. Goossens & Beecham)
Penelope Shumate (soprano), Claudia Chapa (mezzo-soprano), John McVeigh (tenor), Christopher Job (bass-baritone), The Jonathan Griffiths Singers; National Youth Choir of Great Britain; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jonathan Griffiths
Signum Classics SIGCD610   134:13 mins (2 discs)

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‘Refreshed’ was a favourite word frequently bandied about in the late ’70s to describe the fruits of the historically informed practice movement. How ironic then to find it applied to this joyous push-back: a recording of Messiah in all its multi-coloured splendours as reimagined by Sirs Eugene Goossens and Thomas Beecham. Why make do with one horn when four are champing at the bit? Not to mention tuba, bass drum, two harps and triangle. To purists the additions are jaw-dropping. But striking too are the subtractions. Part III for example is severely truncated; and Beecham’s celebrated 1959 recording – still available – relegates eight numbers to an appendix. Andrew Stewart’s delectable liner notes unpack the background.

Dishing up a rich, lusciously executed bowl of nostalgia, Jonathan Griffith conducts with evident relish and affection, even if Beecham’s instinctive ‘lift’ is less to the fore. Things don’t start well as John McVeigh’s initial ‘Comfort Ye’ sounds an uncomfortable semitone or so north of the orchestra, but more generally troublesome is a tendency on the part of all four soloists to luxuriate in an unvaried vibrato that precludes much real engagement with the meaning of the words. That said, Christopher Job delivers a virile ‘Why do the Nations’, blithely untroubled by the ominous distant thunder of Goossens’s percussion. And if Griffith’s choral forces don’t always have the penetrative heft to cut through the orchestral high jinks at their most excitable, they crown the final chorus with a resplendent ‘Amen’. Beecham’s are big boots to fill. It’ll be interesting to see if others follow where Griffith has boldly led.

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Paul Riley