For clarity, this is Handel's 1752 version of Messiah and the live performance is from 1993 in Holland originally issued on DVD but now available cheaply on CD alone from Brilliant Classics. So far as I know nothing has been omitted from the 1752 version much less relegated to an appendix Beecham-style. The usual candidates for this demotion are mainly towards the end of part 3, but there is an interesting and sympathetic argument in their favour offered in the liner note. As for the performance in the Dutch church, the chorus is entirely male, and the boy trebles and altos are strong in tone. The instruments are as you would expect period instruments, and the harpsichord continuo is exceptionally noticeable. This could have been a disaster if the instrument had been of the birdcage-played-with-toasting-forks variety. In fact it is very effective. I liked in particular the arpeggiated chord right at the start of Comfort Ye, and I am still getting used to the way it smoothes out the gap between the two orchestral parts in I Know that My Redeemer.
The performing style should give neither purists nor Handel-lovers any problem. The first flush of authenticity is thankfully behind us, useful though it was in its time. Tempi are recognisable for the most part as within touching distance of Beecham's, although you would not expect many conductors these days to take Behold Darkness or He was Despised as slowly as Beecham took them. These are matters of development and scholarship in the culture of performing music from the early 18th century, but nothing here is suggestive of breaking speed records, as Hogwood's Messiah seemed to be in its day; and (say) the Pastoral Symphony is played here as we have generally played it over recent generations. Ornamentation and mini-cadenzas are used sparingly. I welcome a little ornamentation in He Shall Feed because that is basically a series of repetitions of the same tune to successive verses. On the other hand I would gladly have done without any enhancement whatsoever of Comfort Ye, because for me this is something totally awesome in its plain version, the greatest piece of music that ever went under the title of `recitative'. As a minor complaint I wonder why they did not standardise the treatment of final syllables in -ed. I should also point out in passing that the liner note is at variance with the performance in claiming that He was Cut Off and But Thou didst not Leave are sung by the tenor instead of the soprano, and in similarly misattributing Thou art Gone Up to the bass and not the contralto.
The recording of the solo voices took me aback at first hearing, but I found myself totally won over at the second. First let me say that the soloists are downright superb, just talking about their singing for the moment. The tenor leads off with the stupendous Comfort Ye, and the worst that could be said is that the terrific `presence' Ainsley is surrounded by is a good fault. The best that could be said, and I shall now commit myself to saying it, is that this kind of sound is exactly what the solo parts of Messiah cry out for: it brings us what Shaw so well called the genuine epic stuff of Handel. Ainsley and the soprano Lynne Dawson benefit most, the bass Alastair Miles nearly as much. If this seems to be ungallantly excluding the fine contralto Hillary Summers, that is simply because the contralto voice is just not that sort of voice. However let me make amends by giving her everything she is due for her leading role in the finest rendering of O Thou that Tellest that I have ever heard in my life. The tempo is judged to perfection, giving the piece the swaggering allure that it calls for. The king himself famously leapt to his feet at the Hallelujah: similarly I could hardly stay in my seat from exhilaration at this wonderful O Thou that Tellest.
The chorus does not seem to be very large, but this composer is the ultimate wizard of the chorus, indeed of vocal writing generally. Let me say again how strongly the boys perform, but management of the sound and the balance is rather obviously necessary at times, and I would draw attention if I may to two sequences in particular. In For Unto Us the terrific passage beginning `Wonderful! Counsellor!' is given its electric effect at its first two occurrences, leaving something to be done with the remaining two. Admirably, Cleobury does not try to build up some Beethoven-style climax. Instead he lets the sublime change of harmony at `the mighty God...' make the effect third time round, after which the final statement comes off very persuasively as a kind of summing up. How much more sensible and artistic than trying to make a big noise. If you want a big noise, let Handel provide it because he knows how to do it without massive equipment. The start of the Hallelujah may seem understated (though not very, surely). Given the vocal resources even Handel does not try to make them what they are not at the end of the piece, but he knows what trumpets and drums are for.
This is The Classic among classics, I suppose. For one reason or another I abstained from buying authentic versions until the authentic fever had abated and stuck with Beecham, who is undeniably unique whether or not you like that kind of uniqueness. Now I am putting together a little collection of Messiahs, and I expect them to do the soul more good than all the religions can put together.