Handel: Messiah

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Messiah
PERFORMER: Sibylla Rubens (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (alto), James Taylor (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (bass)Oregon Bach Festival Choir & Orchestra/Helmuth Rilling
CATALOGUE NO: 98.198
Since 1970, Rilling has been director of an annual music festival in Eugene, Oregon, where this Messiah was recorded last year. George Pratt recently noted in these pages that Rilling’s avoidance of period instruments meant that his ‘textual purism is distorted by the actual sound his musicians produce’, a criticism that certainly pertains to this Messiah. Though the CD booklet claims that the performance aims for the ‘clarity’ and ‘transparency’ characteristic of ‘small forces and original instruments’, Rilling has still opted to record with a large chorus and modern orchestra.

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Period instruments may well have supplied the bite and colour lacking here. My chief quarrel, however, is with Rilling’s approach to rhythm: tempi are often hurried, insistent and almost obsessively precise. The soloists sound uncomfortable with this rigidity, Rubens shrilly unconvincing in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, and Danz constrained in ‘He was despised’. When the tempo is slowed, as in ‘Hallelujah’, the result is a rather self-conscious portentousness. Choruses and orchestral playing are clean-edged and smooth, yet this sheen of slick technique can’t hide the emotional vacuum that lies behind it. Graham Lock