Handel: Messiah (arr. Mozart)

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Arabesque
WORKS: Messiah (arr. Mozart)
PERFORMER: Karina Gauvin (soprano), Jennifer Lane (mezzo-soprano), John Elwes (tenor), Brett Polegato (bass); Handel & Haydn Society/Andrew Parrott
CATALOGUE NO: Z 6743-2
Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah is not so much a reorchestration as a refraction of a great work through the lens of another age, another great composer. He undertook the project in 1789 for a performance he conducted with the Society of Associated Cavaliers in Vienna. There is much additional detailing, new lines and colours skilfully woven into the fabric. The result is as if Handel had lived for 40 years longer and assimilated (as surely he of all composers would have) the stunningly rapid evolution in European music that took place after his death.

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This is a recording made from public performances – in Handel’s original English, rather than in the German translation which Mozart used – given by the choir and period instrumentalists of the Handel and Haydn Society in Symphony Hall, Boston. Perhaps first thing that will strike the listener is that the resonance period of the acoustic is relatively short, the sound deadened somewhat by the presence of audiences. Arabesque’s engineers have resisted the temptation to impart any artificial glow. All of which, one might think, provides ample ammunition for Andrew Parrott to adopt fast speeds. He does not. The opening, for instance, is positively stately, indeed almost to a fault. The overall effect is one of spiritual maturity.

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Parrott is ably assisted by his team of soloists, with Jennifer Lane offering a rosy mezzo and John Elwes showing all his experience in the tenor arias. But there is surprisingly strong competition in the catalogue, from Charles Mackerras (with a vintage cast and modern instruments) on a DG Archiv version recorded in 1974, more lately from Jean-Claude Malgoire with his period-style La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roi on Auvidis Astrée, and, strongest of all, from Helmuth Rilling and the Stuttgart Bach Collegium on Hänssler, the most powerful, idiomatic and well-recorded account of Mozart’s Messiah available. Stephen Pettitt