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A lovingly-crafted in-house Messiah from Christophers and the Sixteen
on 26 May 2016
The number of excellent Messiah recordings must be "reckoning up by dozens" and it may be hard to pick a preferred recording from the many recordings of this Handel oratorio. Before the 1960s most Messiah recordings were gargantuan affairs, notably the RCA recording of Beecham. However, Robert Shaw and Sir Colin Davis changed the direction of Messiah performances and recordings by going back to Handel's original orchestral forces. Hogwood gave further impetus with his period instrument version, and many Messiahs have taken the lead from the Hogwood recording. I know that the small-orchestra versions may be manifestations of the great post-war trivialisation (or dumbing-down) of everything, and I know that there is no way in heaven that Baroque-era orchestra could have played Baroque music at such lickety-split speeds. However, I am still grateful that Shaw and Davis made the Messiah less galumphing wthout losing the expressive power of the music.
This Coro recording of Harry Christophers and the Sixteen follows in Hogwood's footsteps. Christophers and the Sixteen had previously recorded Messiah for the Hyperion label in 1988, but revisited the work again in 2008. I haven't got a copy of the Hyperion set, but this is still a strong studio-recorded performance on its own merits.
Of the in-house Messiahs that were produced during the mid-2000s, I find that I rather like the Christophers version a little better than the Rutter-Cambridge Singers and the Naxos version with Higginbottom and the New College (Chapel) Choir. I might put it on the same plane as the Butt-Dunedin version that uses the first Dublin text. There is more vividness and immediacy in this lovingly crafted performance. It also comes across as one of the best-engineered versions of recent years. The sound is open and full-bodied and the singers are generally well-balanced in relation to the orchestra. There is space, air and definition around the various instruments.
Christophers has a strong team of soloists in this in-house Messiah. I say in-house because Sampson, Padmore and Purves were Sixteen alumni who sang with the choir before launching out on solo careers. Of the four soloists, I'm taken with Carolyn Sampson. She offers a spirited, agile delivery of Rejoice greatly and touching readings of the second half of He shall feed His flock, and especially I know that my Redeemer liveth. Christopher Purves is clearly on top of his game, with commanding, firm readings of all his bass parts. I imagine him to be a Messiah veteran, having recorded the bass part for three Messiah recordings to date. I hear chutzpah and panache in his readings of the long version of Why do the nations and especially The trumpet shall sound. Of the other soloists, Catherine Wyn-Rogers has a lovely alto voice and she is focused in highlighting the important words. I was not quite roused by her renditions of the two Guadagni numbers (even with her devout reading of the Larghetto sections of But who may abide). Most female altos struggle to sound fiery in the Refiner's fire coloratura, but they fare better in Thou art gone up on high. Wyn Rogers does well in this number, even if her melismas could have been just that little bit more capricious. Elsewhere she offers up an animated reading of O thou that tellest, a tender rendition of the first part of He shall feed His flock and a stark reading of He was despised. As for Mark Padmore, he does well in all his numbers. I know I found his vibrato a little too wide that it obscured some of the words. However, his Every valley is bracing and he matches the moods of the Part Two lamentation sequence. I find that he also cuts loose in his rendition of Thou shalt break them, just before the Hallelujah chorus. This is a relatively strong team of soloists to have been assembled for a Messiah recording.
The Sixteen underpins the performance with their expert, adept handling of the choral parts, matching the different moods at every turn. It is remarkable that a 19-member choir can produce a full-bodied, clear and projecting sound. I find that some of the lesser-known choruses are particular highlights in this recording. For instance, I love the gleeful renditions of His yoke is easy and All we like sheep. The only thing I wish to mention is that there could have been a bit more dynamic contrasts. I note that there is not much ontrast between the calls and responses in the first part of Lift up your hads. Also, the "Kingdom of this world" section in the Hallelujah chorus is a bit too loud compared to the same section on other recordings of the chorus. Christophers also elicits superb playing from the orchestra, adopting largely brisk yet sympathetic speeds. It is a bright, full sound, but I note that at times it's a little overcooked. The organ continuo dominates the orchestral texture and drowns out the bright, sharp sound of the other instruments.
Why am I hesitant to award full marks to this Messiah recording? Although there is much to love in this Coro recording , I feel a few shortcomings in the performance as recorded. I occasionally wished there could be a bit more thrust in some of the slower numbers. I'm not saying that the performance should go like the clappers. I am only saying that there could be just a little bit more momentum. Sometimes I note that the latter part of Part Two sags just a little with the moderate speeds for the pre-Hallelujah sequence. Also, despite the sensitive handling of the text, I note that occasionally the vowel sounds are a little bit long and might overwhelm the delivery of the words. These shortcomings are only occasional and don't obscure the many pleasures to be had in this lovingly crafted rendition.
This Messiah recording uses the versions that have been most favoured in Messiah performances through the years. Although the preferred combination of numbers does not correspond to any of Handel's known performance schemes, they became part of the "standard" performing scheme that has been handed down through the generations. I have to say I'm a bit bothered and concerned. Sometimes we might not be conscious of the alternative settings of various numbers and Handel's structure and intent. One example comes in Why do the nations. Most people have performed the long version rather than the short version that Handel is known to have performed. I know that this utterance can only make its point more profoundly and potently in the long version, but at this late stage of the oratorio it holds up the momentum and delays the choral outburst of Let us break their bonds asunder. Many performances have treated it as a set piece number in the manner of The trumpet shall sound, rather than as part of a sequence. In any case, many of us have been dulled into accepting the hand-me-down text and implying that Messiah has always been presented in this way since its first performance in 1742.
Among digital-era Messiah recordings, I know I'm deeply keen on the Messiah recording of Cleobury and his King's College forces, specifically the Brilliant Classics version. However, this is a strong, solid version with superb singing and playing in all departments. There are still pleasures to be had in this in-house Messiah.