Handel: Messiah (3 recordings)

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi; Linn; Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Handel
WORKS: Messiah (3 recordings)
PERFORMER: Kerstin Avemo (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo soprano), Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor), Kobie van Rensburg (tenor), Neal Davies (bass); Choir of Clare College, Freiburger Barockorchester/René Jacobs; Susan Hamilton (soprano), Annie Gill (contralto), Cla
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901928.29; CKD 285; 8.770131-32
From the time of its first performance in Dublin in 1742, indeed even before it, Handel became accustomed to make adjustments to his oratorio, Messiah. Ever practical, he ordered different performances from different musicians for different occasions, drawing on who and what was available to him at any given time. For this reason the ‘work’ is to some extent elusive and, though there are more fixed musical entities in Messiah than typically may be found in many a baroque opera, there is no definitive version of the piece. Each of the three new recordings under discussion adheres as far as possible to a particular performance under Handel’s direction. John Butt and the Scottish-based Dunedin Consort and Players have plumped for the first Dublin performance, while Edward Higginbottom, the Choir of New College Oxford and the Academy of Ancient Music have chosen London performances of 1751 when Handel used boys’ treble voices for choruses and arias. René Jacobs, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra by contrast have opted for the London version of 1750.

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While the bulk of the score remains in place in each of the versions there are important and sometimes striking differences. These are mainly to be found in the arias ‘Rejoice greatly’, sung by a tenor (New College) as opposed to a soprano, ‘But who may abide the day of His coming’, sung by a bass (Dunedin), as opposed to a countertenor, ‘He shall feed His flock’, sung as a soprano solo (Dunedin), countertenortreble (New College), and altocountertenor (Clare College) and ‘How beautiful are the feet of them’, sung as a soprano-alto duet to a text from Isaiah (Dunedin), a treble solo to a text from Romans (New College) and a countertenor solo, once again to the Romans text (Clare College).

The three performances in their different ways are rewarding. The Dunedin artists are stylish, fresh sounding in their choral singing and often more intimate than the other two versions in their manner of communication. Susan Hamilton’s solo contributions are outstanding though Matthew Brook’s ‘The trumpet shall sound’ comes across with insufficient light and shade. This is the most softly spoken of the three recordings, further underlined by Handel’s restrained scoring for strings, trumpet and drums.

The bright, continental sound of the boys’ voices in the New College recording is, to my ears, irresistible though not perhaps invariably so. The chorus ‘For unto us a Child is born’ takes a while to settle down but when it does it is thrilling; and the choruses ‘All we like sheep’, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and the Amen are scintillating from start to finish. Additionally, there are fine solo contributions from treble Otta Jones and the remaining soloists, of whom Eamon Dougan gives a beautifully shaded account of ‘The Trumpet shall sound’.

As we might expect, René Jacobs brings a livelier and more immediate sense of theatre to Handel’s music than his two rivals. His orchestra is slightly larger than the others and his continuo department more elaborate with a strengthened double bass line that often proves effective. Lawrence Zazzo and Neal Davies turn in excellent performances of their music, the former proving, I should imagine, a worthy successor to Handel’s young castrato Gaetano Guadagni. The Clare College Choir, of which the upper strands are provided by women, is very good indeed proving capable of colourfully dramatic declamation.

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In summary, choices will depend more upon versions than quality in performance. I have outlined only the major differences between the three. Dunedin and New College offer versions that cannot be found elsewhere while Jacobs achieves a result which will disappoint few if any readers. Nicholas Anderson