HANDEL: Messiah at Grace Cathedral – audio-only Blu-ray (2015)

Rather laidback for my taste.

HANDEL: Messiah at Grace Cathedral (1753 Foundling Hospital Version) – audio-only Blu-ray (2015)

Mary Wilson, sop./ Eric Jurenas, countertenor/ Kyle Stegall, tenor/ Jesse Blumberg, bar./ John Thiessen, trumpet/ American Bach Soloists/ American Bach Ch./ Jeffrey Thomas (Live from Grace Cathedral, San Francisco 2014)
Producer: Abigail McKee
Director: Frank Zamacona
Studio: American Bach Soloists (1 Blu-Ray Disc)
Video: Full HD 1920 X 1080i 16:9 color
Audio: PCM Stereo 2.0, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Length: 147 min., 31 min. (doc.) 
Extras: Welcome to Grace Cathedral, About Handel’s Messiah
Rating: ***

Grace Cathedral presents a music series every year, and of course Messiah is a perennial favorite, as it is at almost every music series in the country. This year the American Bach Soloists decided to grace the cathedral with their take on this most popular piece of music in the world, the sterling Jeffrey Thomas leading the pack. I have always been a fan of Thomas and his ABS, but I must say that this release is a major disappointment.

First the visuals: Aside from the over-reliance on camera pans to the various pieces of artwork in the cathedral, and the extraordinarily superfluous twenty miles of streamers from the ceiling hit with various colored lights, called Graced with Light – the Ribbon Project by cathedral artist-in-residence Anne Patterson (which might very well look better in person, but here seems rather self-indulgent), the visual aspect of the production is quite good. It certainly is atmospheric, with excellent pictorial accounts of the performers despite the penchant of many of them for over-emotive facial expressions that at times seem comical. Why do oratorio soloists feel that they are at dramatic readings now? We don’t need or want radiant smiles or serious frowns when making textual points! The sound, on the other hand, is marvelous for the most part, though the wayward acoustic of so large a space occasionally gets a little diffuse. But the instruments, chorus, and soloists are clear as a bell.

If you don’t like countertenors — and for a host of reasons I don’t, including the fact that they were never as popular in solo roles in Handel’s time as they are now and never had half the power of the uber-popular castratos — you won’t like this. Not that Mr. Jurenas is a bad musician—in fact, he is the best of the lot, very versatile and spot on with intonation—but there is something about the sound that simply grates on my ears and comes across as highly unnatural, which it is. The other soloists are competent, most of them more than that, but they don’t inspire or present anything special, and in a recorded legacy that sports more specialness than perhaps any other piece ever, that is a problem. Mr. Thiessen’s trumpet work, however, is superb.

Thomas, one of the most reliable conductors out there, decides to overwhelm us with geniality; there is little drama or spirit to this concert, everything too relaxed and routine. Watching him, there is no doubt that he has an exact command of the score but is asleep at the wheel. And the pacing is bad—he takes too much time between numbers. I remember the late Robert Shaw, who could not stand pokey Messiahs, had this down to an exact art—he kept his Messiah moving really well! I have no doubt that those present enjoyed every moment of their outing; and there are few Blu-ray concert recordings available at the moment. But with the likes of Marriner, Cleobury, Hogwood, and the recent LSO Live presentation of the late lamented Colin Davis on DVD, I would look elsewhere unless you are a rabid fan of the ABS, Grace Cathedral, or attended and liked the concert.

—Steven Ritter

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