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HANDEL: Messiah (complete) – Soloists/Mormon Tabernacle Choir – CFN – (2 CDs + DVD)

The third complete Messiah recording from this legendary ensemble.

HANDEL: Messiah – Sonya Yoncheva (soprano), Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazon (tenor), Bryn Terfel (bass), Mormon Tabernacle Choir/ Orch. at Temple Square/ Mack Wilberg – Mormon Tabernacle Choir CFN 1631-2 (2 CDs) + Bonus DVD – 320k or FLAC download, TT: 2:23:26, 40:17 (DVD) (3/4/16) ****:

The saga of the Mormons and their trek across America is indelibly etched into the psyche of all people in this country, regardless of what one’s opinion is of the religious tenets behind the faith. Mormons, not universally recognized by the Christian population of the United States—or the world—as a Christian religion, have struggled to become mainstream accessible for many, many years, and their success in this endeavor is much higher today than it was fifty or sixty years ago. But one of their most fruitful efforts was in the creation of the Tabernacle Choir, a highly sophisticated amateur ensemble of great size that enjoyed superior technical finesse, beauty of sound, and a repertory that spoke all aspects of the American experience. Founded in 1847, only a month after arriving in Utah, and building their unique tabernacle in 1867, the group consolidated into one of the most famous in the world. Their weekly radio broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word, skyrocketed their fame. The sheer number of albums they have recorded, over 300, speaks to the popularity of the choir.

One of these albums, from five that went “gold”, is the 1959 Messiah with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of many that the choir recorded with this orchestra, and still a very popular selection. Later the choir re-recorded the work under Sir David Willcocks (1995), a recording that has not had the same impact as the Ormandy. Messiah has been performed often by the choir over the years, and selections have shown up on many compilation albums, but only now has conductor Mack Wilberg decided that the time was ripe for a new effort.

He faces many challenges—you can’t really reduce the size of this choir and maintain any historical credibility, yet the period movement has undoubtedly had a large influence forever on Messiah interpretative premises. So what he does is take the issue head on, basically saying that while modern visions of what the Messiah is have contributed a lot to our knowledge of Baroque practice, in fact, starting just a few years after the premiere of the work, it was already undergoing a lot of revisions and experiments. Therefore, the idea of an uber-large choir is old enough to become part and parcel of the historical—and therefore, valid—exponent of the piece.

The Orchestra at Temple Square is an amateur, but darned good, orchestra, much larger than most Messiah orchestras these days, and on modern instruments. But they are playing with period awareness, often sans vibrato, tight phrasing, and anti-Romantic impulse without being dry and antiseptic. The choir, around 340, is well-manicured, enthusiastic, and remarkably in sync for such a large ensemble. The harpsichord is very prominent. Interpretatively, I can’t find anything wrong with this, and much right. It is engaging, emotionally convincing, and spiritually uplifting—remember when that was an important component of Messiah performances?

Now for the not-so-good-news. As far as sound, I do wish they had issued this in surround—a major wasted opportunity, considering the venue and the forces. In the overture, I wasn’t certain at first how big the orchestra was, meaning that the sound didn’t seem to capture the full magnitude of the size of the orchestra, and this continues to be a problem with the choir also, though this is not consistent. Some places sound more “present” than others, which makes me wonder what sort of minute tweaks might have been going on among sessions (it was recorded over a two-year period). There is a decided lack of bass weight, and often the tenors and baritones, especially in the faster passages, are difficult to detect. At times the full force of the choir is missing, though I admit that heard over headphones this problem is not as evident.

In short, the sound is certainly gracious and deep, even though it often lacks impact—the old Columbia surpasses it in this regard, even with its microscopic miking. But the performance carries a lot of authority and passion, and as the numbers passed I found myself more and more drawn into the spirit of the thing. It might not rank as my first choice, even among large choirs, but it is definitely worth acquiring, especially for those who love the piece as I do. The accompanying DVD is a nice bonus, basically putting to pictures the things found in the excellent booklet. Soloists are excellent, fortunately avoiding a countertenor.

—Steven Ritter

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