VINE VOICEon 11 January 2010
This EMI recording is the third Messiah that Cleobury and the King's College Choir have done, made during the 2009 Easter at King's season of concerts. I have reviewed the CD elsewhere, and I think my thoughts about the performance apply to this DVD version as well. 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 Columns 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 though I know that many recent King's recordings have suffered from not-so-good technical quality it doesn't show up that much here. 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 suffered 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 CD of Messiah. 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. However, the DVD makes up for the technical quality because the performance sounds better when you set your player to Dolby 3-channel surround, and then you feel as if you're in the living presence of Cleobury and the choir. I also think that the Dolby settings do better justice to the unique acoustic of King's College Chapel as well. This DVD can nicely complement the previous King's College Messiah DVD that Columns Classics made in the Pieterskerk, as it would show how Cleobury's King's College Choir has become riper in the singing, and also how he has matured in his conception of the work.
I'm really not qualified to say anything about the camerawork on this DVD, so I won't touch on it. Compared to the other DVD, the camera crew captures the performance from fairly good angles. Also, I note that they do a panorama around the vaulted roof of the Chapel when they're not focusing on the singers and the orchestra. The Pieterskerk DVD (formerly available on Image Entertainment) didn't do much panoramic work with the cameras, but it incorporates some Rembrandt paintings into the performance to ease our eyes after they've seen the performers on stage for a long time.
It's great to have a DVD version of this performance that was screened in cinemas as a live relay on the day it was performed. However, the EMI DVD package lets you down in some ways. The one thing that grates me is that EMI could have fitted the entire oratorio onto 1 DVD rather than break the oratorio after "Lift up your heads" to tell us to change the disc. I know that DVDs may have space constraints but it upsets me greatly to think how they didn't fit the whole oratorio onto a single DVD like some of the other issues. This makes this set quite costly and expensive, but since I paid 10 pounds for this set in good faith it's not too bad. It becomes more painful considering that EMI has other opera performances in its DVD catalogue that run to 2 DVDs when they could have fitted onto 1 disc. Also, it hurts to think that EMI didn't provide any booklet with notes, texts and translations. I know that EMI is in difficulties and in dire straits, but I've known the DVDs I've bought to have many informative booklets that allow us to follow along. So while it's well done to Cleobury and King's, it's shame on EMI for not presenting the DVD adequately.
In short, this performance of Messiah is wonderful in spite of its small flaws. Yet they seem to be nothing compared to the presentation boo-boos that EMI has made when issuing this DVD. I know that the marketplace of Messiah recordings is extremely hypercompetitive and is saturated with so many excellent recordings to choose from, especially from the likes of Shaw, Colin Davis, Pinnock, Jacobs, Gardiner and Rutter. And while I know that there's competition from the other King's Messiah DVD, I think this is still a wonderful performance that is delightful to watch and to listen. Meanwhile I do hope that someone will really come up with an issue of this performance such that it fits the oratorio onto one DVD.