on 4 May 2009
To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge and to mark Handel's 250th anniversary of the composer's death a live concert of Handel's Messiah was held at King's College Chapel on April 5, 2009 (Palm Sunday). This concert was broad casted to over 85 movie theaters throughout Europe. The concert was performed by the Choir of King's College, soloists from the Royal Opera House and the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.
The conjunction of the orchestra and the Choir is excellent, especially considering this being a live performance. The soloists did a fine job, especially Ailish Tynan (soprano). The sound of the registration is reasonably fine, but could have been better, a bit less direct and more balanced. Maybe the DVD version can convince more in the available surround mode(s). The DVD of this concert will come out later this year.
A beautiful performance that is well worth the buy! I personally find the Hogwood version of the Messiah (Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral) still the best and I can recommend that one if you are into the non massive choir performances.
There are three CD recordings of Messiah that Cleobury and the King's College Choir have made. They have previously recorded the work for Decca/Argo in 1992 and also taped a broadcast performance for the Dutch label Columns Classics (now Brilliant Classics) at about the same time. This EMI recording is the latest of the three, their most recent recording that was made during the 2009 Easter at King's season of concerts. As a fan of King's I find this an extremely satisfying recording of the work, and Cleobury and the King's Choir are in fine form as they have always been. Cleobury has the Academy of Ancient Music to play superbly for him, and his soloists are equally fine. However, I must admit there are some small shortcomings that I've noticed in this recording - and these shortcomings are technical weaknesses that have plagued many recent EMI recordings.
Cleobury has had a wonderful musical love affair of the King's College Choir since he started conducting them in 1982. In fact he has built on the superb work of Sir David Willcocks, who made a wonderful all-male King's Messiah for EMI in 1972. When one listens to this recording, one is struck by the consistency of Cleobury's approach. Yet he has also matured and mellowed in the way he conducts the work. Cleobury adopts brisk tempi like in his previous versions but yet he infuses his performance with slightly more gravitas. I'm struck by the stark seriousness of Behold the Lamb of God and He was despised, as they're quite effective at his chosen speeds. His Choir sings superbly, and this crop of choristers and choral scholars is arguably one of his best overall teams in recent years. The choruses are characterful, with wonderful, melodious and well-balanced singing. They are crisp, alert and dynamic especially in For unto us and the Hallelujah chorus, except that I would have liked there to be a faster tempo for And the glory of the Lord (i.e. conducted at one in a bar like the Higginbottom version). The team of soloists is very fine, and they sing as superbly as their counterparts on the earlier recordings (the Decca version and the live Pieterskerk version on Ccolumns Classics.) Oddly enough I found I liked the male soloists a little more than the female soloists. Allan Clayton is an extremely musical tenor in his solos, especially the opening Comfort ye recitative that leads into Every valley. It was a treat to hear him do the extended version of O death, where is thy sting when he duetted with Alice Coote. I rather liked Matthew Rose, as he seemed to sing his solos to the rafters and project his voice perfectly clearly. I especially liked his rendition of The trumpet shall sound, and he seemed to inspire the trumpet soloist who accompanied him in this aria. However, I felt a little uncomfortable with the female soloists, as I felt that their voices were a little heavy and had a little too much vibrato. Alice Coote's voice is motherly and very comforting, and her renditions of O thou that tellest and He was despised were tender and light, though I prefer Anne Sofie von Otter's versions on the Pinnock recording a little more. Alish Tynan's soprano solos are heartfelt but I must admit that even in her solo of I know that my Redeemer liveth she sounded as if she was singing the role of Brünnhilde rather than a Handel oratorio. Nevertheless she is just as musical as the other soloists on Cleobury's team.
I know I've got minor quibbles about the solo singing, but their singing is mighty fine and they don't undermine the performance. However I must admit that the technical quality of the recording is a serious handicap to a fine performance like this. I know I shouldn't say this as it's unfair to the artists who have made the record. However I know that EMI's sound quality in recent years has suffereed from dynamic range limiting, and the sound is opaque that it lacks the punch, airiness, clarity and kick of a well-engineered recording, such as the recent Harry Christophers recording of Messiah. I know that many recent EMI recordings of Cleobury & King's have suffered from this problem, but I also notice that other superbly-performed EMI CDs like the Simon Rattle Brahms and the Leif Ove Andsnes Schumann & Grieg piano concertos are also afflicted with these technical problems. I'm not speaking just for this CD, as I've got some other recent EMI Classics CDs that have suffered from this problem too. No doubt the recording is of a good quality, and it captures the acoustic of the King's Chapel well, but yet it seems to favour the orchestra rather than the choir. As such, while I can hear the sound of the choir clearly, I feel as if the 1994 Pieterskerk version on Brilliant Classics (or Columns Classics), or even the superbly-engineered Decca/Argo version, seem better recorded, even despite its not-so-favourable acoustic. The EMI technicians make me hope that one day King's College & Cleobury could set up their own record label and get Chris Hazell & Simon Eadon to engineer their recordings to produce a sensitive, atmospheric, well-balaced and clear sound.
In short, Cleobury & King's College Choir have turned in consistently excellent performances, and this Messiah is equally wonderful in spite of its small flaws. I know that the marketplace of Messiah recordings is extremely hypercompetitive with so many excellent recordings to choose from, especially from the likes of Shaw, Colin Davis, Pinnock, Jacobs, Gardiner and Rutter. Yet the recordings of Messiah with Cleobury and the King's Choir are always fit to stand with the very best. While this recording has its merits I would still recommend the 1994 Brilliant Classics version, as I felt a little more spark in that version. But this recording is still a good buy and the price is quite fair as well.
on 5 October 2010
The music on this recording is absolutely lovely, as previous reviewers have said. However, when you order it as an MP3 album, because the numbering remains as for two CDs, the order gets mixed up - you get track 1 from CD 1 then track 1 from CD2, then track 2 from CD1 then track 2 from CD2 etc. This means that to listen to it you first have to rearrange all the tracks, which is time-consuming and frustrating. This could be really easily solved by Amazon starting the second CD at track 23 - I emailed Amazon to suggest this after I bought it a couple of weeks ago, but have only had the response that my query would be passed to the MP3 team.