Sir Andrew Davis conducts Handel’s Messiah

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Messiah (arr. Andrew Davis)
PERFORMER: Erin Wall (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo), Andrew Staples (tenor), John Relyea (bass-baritone); Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5176(2) (hybrid CD/SACD)


The search for authenticity in performing Messiah is so firmly established that it seems quite perverse to regress to what the composer certainly didn’t intend. Yet numerous examples exist, following two principles – retaining but re-orchestrating Handel’s original harmonies and, secondly, elaborating and enriching them. Mozart chose the latter – the chromatic clarinets displaying ‘a great light’ in ‘The people that walked in darkness’ is truly unforgettable.

Andrew Davis adopts the expansive model: almost 150 voices and orchestral forces of 55 strings, wind from piccolo to contrabassoon, and a huge battery of percussion including such exotica as marimba and sleigh bells.

He calls on some wonderfully imaginative orchestral techniques: ‘All we like sheep’ accompanied by pizzicato strings (and phrasing of the words exaggerated to make clear that this isn’t expressing a preference for Sunday lunch). Such a mass of voices is astonishingly well controlled. There are no concessions of tempo in the lightness and delicacy of ‘And he shall purify’, while ‘And the glory of the Lord’ reflects the giocoso marking with which Davis characterises it.

The solo voices are rich and weighty, sometimes overly so – the bass-baritone ‘shake(s) the heav’ns and the earth’ with more dramatic ferocity than accuracy. But flute provides a charming obbligato to ‘How beautiful are the feet’, while the tenor’s ‘Thy rebuke…’ is intensely moving.

Jennens’s narrative from Old Testament prophesy to Resurrection is cut from well over two hours to barely over 110 minutes but much of what remains demonstrates a remarkable choral achievement.

George Pratt


Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.