Way back in the early 1980s, I fell in love with the recordings of Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music. His period interpretations of the Baroque composers were charming, and the performers that surrounded him brought something fresh and new to Handel, Vivaldi, Purcell and other Baroque and early classical composers. The first Hogwood recording I ever purchased was the Messiah included in this set, and it remains one of the finest interpretations of this work in the catalogue.
Messiah: The one feature of this recording that makes it unmistakably one of the two or three best recordings of Messiah on the current market is the singing of the soloists. Every single solo or duet is executed with flawless perfection. Period. That's right. The two sopranos, Judith Nelson and Emma Kirkby sharing the soprano solos, Carolyn Watkinson delivering a wonderful "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," Paul Elliot, Tenor, and David Thomas, bass/baritone - all of them make this the set to buy for the solo singing. Not to say the choir shirks their responsibilities at all. The Christ Church Choir, Oxford Cathedral is absolutely perfect. Using boy sopranos, it doesn't have the power that an all adult choir would have, but discussing that would take us into an apples and oranges comparison that really serves no purpose here. If you want a different choir, you have John Eliot Gardener, McCreesh, or Stephen Cleobury with the King's College Choir. While those versions are outstanding from a choral perspective, and some even have moments of outstanding solo performances, nothing...and I mean nothing, even comes close to Judith Nelson's "Rejoice Greatly, Oh Daughter of Zion'" Paul Elliott's "Every Valley," or David Thomas' "The Trumpet Shall Sound."
Then go back and listen to choral selections like "He Trusted in God," "For Unto Us A Child is Born," or "His Yoke is Easy." Whatever this choir may lack in power and richness, it more than makes up for in precision, clarity, and sheer beauty. Remember, this is one of the first period performance recordings, and if memory serves, Hogwood was trained as a musical historian. Educated, informed, and restored back to what the performances may have sounded like at the baton under Handel himself. The recording raised the bar for every one that came after it, and it is a must have for serious Handel and Baroque collectors.
Athalia: This recording also boasts an all-star period performer cast of David Thomas, Emma Kirkby, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and Paul Bowman with Dame Joan Sutherland singing the title role of Athalia. Again, the soloists are the stars here. The choir is much more powerful than in the Messiah recording, and whether just listening for the music or following along the storyline for the drama, this is a masterful recording.
Queen Athalia is a Baal-worshipper, daughter of the Jezebel. Her chief general, Abner, secretly calls for the worship of Yahweh under the legitimate king, the boy Joas (the real heir to the throne). He has been raised in secret, and when the truth will come out, Athalia goes on the war path. The role of Athalia calls for a fiery singer, and Sutherland gives it her operatic best. Although she was quite past her prime when this recording was made, she is wonderful in the role of Athalia. Her voice is old, and she sings with quite a bit more vibrato than the rest of the cast, making her stand out at times. But on the whole, she is quite effective in this role. Nothing like her earlier performances of Donzinetti, but when called for, she brings forth the wrath and fury the role calls for. At times, you can actually sympathize with Athalia, and are given perspective and a point of view you might not get from a less experienced performer.
The choir is magnificent. "Cheer Her, Oh Ba'al" will send chills down your spine. In all eight CDs in this set, this is one of the pieces where Hogwood's musical insight and inspiration just soars. On "The Clouded Scene Shall Clear'" we hear a perfect balance of orchestra and chorus - the strings are practically dancing - and Hogwood is using dynamics and variations in tempo to great dramatic effect that far exceeds anything we see in his earlier performances of other Handel works. On the whole, Athalia lacks in the number of memorable, hooky tunes that Handel seemed to front load in "Messiah." But a fine addition to any collection of Handel or Baroque oratorio.
The Resurrection: Differing from other oratorios in this set, Resurrection is sung in Italian, and consists entirely of soloist and ensemble singing. No chorus here. The story line follows events from Good Friday until Easter Sunday, from the viewpoint of Satan, Mary Magdalene, and St. John. Again, the performances are stellar. But what distinguishes this work is the number of "pop" tunes throughout the work. This is gorgeous songwriting on the part of the composer. I hate to compare, but of the baroque era composers, no one could top Handel and Vivaldi at coming up with crowd pleasing tunes. Yes, they both died poor and fell out of fashion, as good pop tunesmiths tend to do. But the songwriting makes this work is a joy to listen to. And again, David Thomas as Lucifer just steals the show. He is powerful, brilliantly precise, and executes those Baroque runs to perfection without losing the emotion and the drama of the role he is performing. Even though she doesn't have a starring role her, contralto Carolyn Watkinson turns in wonderful performances as well.
Esther: Handel's first Oratorio. Esther has a simple story plot. Very, very simple. Jewish folk are real excited because their Queen Esther has been made queen to the Persian king, Ahasuerus. No sooner than they are married, the king's rotten high priest proclaims that all Jews must be put to death. The first few scenes go back and forth between Jewish and Persian camps declaring destruction of the other team. Finally Esther goes to see her husband. Overcome with her beauty, he tells her that the decree wasn't meant to include her. She tells husband to destroy her people is to destroy her. Husband sees the error of his ways, and drags the high priest in for an accounting of ways. He apologizes profusely, but Esther sees through his alligator tears, he's executed, and everyone stands around singing praises to Jehovah God. The end. In seven scenes, the whole oratorio clocks in at 1 hour and 37 minutes flat.
Though quite popular throughout Handel's career, and composed at a time when public taste was shifting from Italian to English, it is the blandest work included on this set, but the best recorded from an sound engineering stand point. Like an early Mozart opera compared to a Magic Flute or a Figaro, it is a real joy to listen to, but no "Israel in Egypt" or "Messiah." Soloists and orchestra are perfection. Unlike the other works, the real star of this recording is Hogwood and his delicate interpretation of the material. Every syllable of each solo and chorus is perfectly understandable, so much you barely need to reference a libretto - which brings me to my next point. To really enjoy these pieces, you really need to consult the librettos, at least until you are familiar with the plots in Athalia, The Resurrection, and Esther. I purchased the set on mp3, so I had to do some digging around on the internet. But they are easily obtainable for download, and at no cost.
The Sound Quality: Even though all four works are performed by slightly different ensembles (choirs and soloists), they all share Christopher Hogwood at the helm with the Academy of Ancient Music providing orchestral accompaniment. While not up to the most modern standards as exhibited on some of the McCreesh recordings and on the recent Vivaldi Edition recordings coming from the French Naïve label, for their time they are quite remarkable. As good as Gardiner is with the English Baroque Ensemble and the Monteverdi Choir, their recordings of Handel on the Arkiv label are drowning in reverb which makes understanding the lyrics quite difficult, even with libretto in hand. Not the case here. The boy sopranos can sound a little shrill during some of the louder passages, but what you get from the Decca engineers is clean, warm, and immersive. In the Esther recordings, you could be sitting five rows back in the theatre. Quite impressive.
The fact that you are getting four complete oratorios with Christopher Hogwood conducting for this price makes this set a steal. And if this is your first exposure to Hogwood, buy this set, but realize...it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface in the career of one of the finest conductors of our time. Highly recommend.