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HANDEL: Messiah – Soloists/ Le Concert D’Astree/ Emmanuelle Haim – Erato (2 discs)

HANDEL: Messiah – Lucy Crowe, soprano/ Andrew Staples, alto/ Tim Mead, tenor, Christopher Purves, bass/ Le Concert D’Astree/ Emmanuelle Haim – Erato 2564624055 (2 CDs), 135:28 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The recording itself needs a volume boost, no big deal, but the sound in general is excellent, recorded at the Opera de Lille. There is plenty of room for the most subtle of softs, and the full force of the players and singers show considerable sonic boom.

Emmanuelle Haim is one of my favorite conductors, always seeming to find new and unique angles on established pieces that make them feel like they should always be played in similar manner, and uncovering no few unknown works which sound like masterworks when she is finished with them. So I was expecting great things from this Messiah, and eagerly popped the discs into my player. Anticipation built as the overture, measured but mannered, completed. But alas, my hopes were misplaced—this is a very good Messiah, bordering in places on the truly superb, but overall it fails to mark any new ground. Perhaps expecting something like this at this point in time is simply unrealistic—how much can really be done with this piece, so beloved, so well-worn, with, face it—so many recordings.

The chorus is excellent, with the choruses taken mostly at quick but enlightened tempos, and Haim can’t resist a few willful dynamic shadings here and there. One comes at the “echo effect” she tries to achieve alternating loud and less loud passages in the “Hallelujah” Chorus that to me is wholly unconvincing. She also displays a penchant for loud and somewhat harsh timpani, which are so loud at the end of the same chorus that you can hardly hear the singers! Surely someone should have noticed this in the mixing process and spoken up.

The singers are tangentially problematic. If you have an allergy to male altos—countertenors—this will not be a first choice—I am not overly fond of Andrew Staples’s tonal qualities. Tim Mead’s tenor is generally fine but there are many better performances to be had. Bass Christopher Purves sings with a decidedly nasal tone—almost squeezed in “The trumpet shall sound”—but possesses a remarkable clarity and easy going range. The real star is Lucy Crowe, a brilliant performer and performance, who nails the part with aplomb and knocks us out with the beautiful quality of her voice.

Colin Davis (Philips, now on a spectacular one-disc audio-only Blu-ray) is still my choice for a single collection Messiah. But despite my reservations, I would not have given four stars if it was not a beautifully performed and a very moving rendition.

—Steven Ritter

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