Like Mr. Murphy and "a Listener," this reviewer has owned and listened to this performance for fifty years. Why it is almost always compared unfavorably with Scherchen's earlier mono recording is a mystery. As Johannes Climacus has mentioned in his insightful review, the chorus here (perhaps because it is Austrian rather than English) bridles far less at the conductor's manifold idiosyncrasies than does its London counterpart. In addition, the extent to which one marks the choristers' German accent has been exaggerated (critical exaggeration should surprise no one, since exaggeration of one sort or another is a hallmark of this performance). Indeed, most of the time no inappropriate accent is present, and even at worst it is not bad enough to merit complaint, certainly in comparison with the American accents that have spoilt a great many Messiah accounts from this side of the Atlantic. On the strongly plus side, the Vienna chorus, small and professional, sings with fully supported tone and astonishing virtuosity. Not even the Sixteen or the Dunedin Consort articulates the runs in "And he shall purify" with fewer aspirates. (Even though this account of Messiah runs 195 minutes--it is thus fully an hour longer than a number of lickety-split modern accounts--this chorus is one of several that Scherchen conducts as fast as or faster than anyone else.)
It is not only the chorus, however, that makes this performance arguably superior to Scherchen's mono London performance. Despite the fact that certain passages that should have been given retakes weren't--evidently there were budget and time constraints (plus ça change!)--the Vienna instrumentalists are never less than the equal of the Londoners and often their superior (the solo trumpet and solo violin are especially fine). As Climacus writes, too, the interpretation has a more settled feel overall. Many "extreme" tempos remain, however; for example, the Amen is fully two minutes slower than before (roughly 8.5 minutes). If one can unlearn the listening habits of the past forty years--no easy matter, of course--the experience of Scherchen's Amen chorus may spoil one for all others. (All praise to the Dunedin performance, by the way, whose Amen chorus rivals this one in expressive depth while taking half the time [Messiah - Dublin Version 1742].)
The few adverse remarks about Simoneau's performance are baffling. He stands at the windswept summit of Messiah tenors. None can match him for beauty of voice, control of breath, musicianship, musicality, subtlety, and expressive range. Though his name is French, Simoneau grew up in a bilingual Canadian household and spoke English without a trace of an accent (he never even sounded especially Canadian). All of his vowels are truly native (no French nasality), and his consonants are pronounced in the English (i.e., rather than American) fashion appropriate to this repertory. To hear truly accented singing in Messiah, one need only go to the two Harnoncourt performances (though only the second has been widely praised, both are admirable). The unfortunate Marjana Lipovsek (in the first; Handel: Messiah) and the splendid Christine Schäfer (in the second; Handel: Messiah [Hybrid SACD]) would make a resuscitated Handel, who to the day of his death spoke heavily German-accented English, feel right at home.
Pierrette Alarie's mispronunciation of "justifieth" as "jus-ti-fee-eth" has been widely remarked over the years. As this linguistic lapse is her only sin, she deserves to be spared stoning. Her performance is otherwise wonderful; only Ameling, Felicity Palmer, Kirkby, and one or two other sopranos are her peers. The air "If God be for us," wherein she mispronounces the word, embodies a good example of her artistry. At a duration of ten minutes (a typical timing is 4.5 minutes), Scherchen--seeking to mine the profundity of the biblical text--sets a tempo that makes almost unmeetable demands upon the breath control and interpretative resources of the singer. This being the last air in the oratorio, Scherchen treats it as the capstone of the individual's response to the Gospel (the following choruses, culminating in the grandest of all Amens, are the community's response). Alarie's singing--ethereal but sustained, responsive to text and music but not vulgarly overstated--superbly realizes Scherchen's vision of Handel's score.
The American Nan Merriman was a prominent singer in her day; indeed, Toscanini was one of her admirers. Like Ferrier's or Forrester's, Merriman's voice had the true contralto weight and color, though her sound lacked the sheer beauty of Ferrier's and the smile, like a shaft of sunlight illuminating a landscape, that that lady could bring to her tone. Merriman is surprisingly brilliant in the divisions of "For he is like a refiner's fire" and dignified and consolatory in "He was despised." She may lack the ultimate distinction of Baker, Watts, Reynolds, von Otter, and Esswood, but she need not hang her head even in their company. The prominent vibrato that is a distinguishing characteristic of her voice will strike some present-day listeners as jarring, however. Forewarned is forearmed.
Richard Standen, the bass, also took part in the earlier Scherchen performance and unquestionably sang much better there. Here he is often a trial, but even so, the absence of a wobble in his dry, hollow sound is some compensation. As an interpreter, Standen is no Shirley-Quirk, but very few basses are (certainly not the initially stunning but soon tiresome Gerald Finley).
This Messiah is not something for everyday listening--its sheer interpretative oddness makes such words as "idiosyncratic" and "eccentric" seem almost like euphemisms--and no one under the age of fifty who finds it incomprehensible or unbearable should be chided. It is the product of another world, another time; even when it was new, it was caviar to the general. So it is still.