Despite the off-putting cover art, Hockox leads a competitive Messiah in the hybrid category launched in the Sixties by Colin Davis. One of the great strengths of Davis's groundbreaking recording was the solo singing, and Hockox has found nearly the best singers since then, thanks to the young Bryn Terfel's commanding performance and Philip Langridge's superior tenor. Both are fine enough to erase memories of the woolly, discreet oratorio style of the past. Countertenor Christopher Robson is also quite musical and possessed of an attractive voice, although frankly I would have preferred to hear Terfel sing "For he is like a refiner's fire." At least we have the thrill of "Why do the nations" and a glorious "The trumpet shall sound" - have either been better done on records?
Alto Della Jones gets a share of the arias usually assigned to a woman rather than a countertenor, such as "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion," but she's rather matronly in delivery, harking back to an earlier age. Her technique is good, but she has no charisma. The one singer who must have charisma is the soprano, who is given the most beautiful arias. Without effacing memories of Jennifer Vyvyan and Heather Harper, Joan Rodgers does very well. She has the "virtuous" sound demanded by "I know that my Redeemer liveth," done with touching sincerity. On the whole, though, it's the male side of the solo quintet that shines.
The solo singing has no real air of HIP style, leaving aside a few ornamentations, which is why this is a hybrid performance; the Collegium Musicum 90 is a period group, so against Joan Rodgers' fluttery vibrato we get no vibrato in the strings. the meeting of opposites remains very pleasing nonetheless, and the engineers have managed to make the harpsichord audible without gross exaggeration. the small chorus sings very expertly. As for Hickox himself, leading the standard performing edition, he splits the difference between the Messiah as religious work and as theater piece. I wish her were more consistent. Langridge dramatizes "Ev'ry valley" to exciting effect, but then we drop into a placid "And the glory of the Lord."
Despite its tame moments, this performance benefits from Hickox's great experience as a choral conductor. Nothing is anemic or dry, which cannot be said of esteemed HIP Messiahs under Gardiner and Pinnock. The touchstone, as ever, is the Hallelujah Chorus, which really should resound to the hills - Hickox comes closer than most. (It's hard to find a HIP reading, however skillful, where the Hallelujah's don't sound like calling the waiter for more hot water.)
I'd want to own this recording if only for Terfel's great singing, but enough of the rest is so good that it makes a solid recommendation for anyone who likes a reduced Messiah that boasts robust singing.