HANDEL: Messiah (1751 version) – Soloists, the Academy of Ancient of Music and the Choir of New College, Oxford/ Edward Higginbottom – Naxos

by | Dec 13, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HANDEL: Messiah (1751 version) – Soloists, the Academy of Ancient of Music and the Choir of New College, Oxford/ Edward Higginbottom – Naxos 8.570131 (2 CDs), 69:14, 73:05 *****:

It’s more than 40 years since Colin Davis (for Philips) and Charles Mackerras (for EMI) recorded stunning versions of Handel’s Messiah with their musiciolgoically-inspired approaches to style and substance that turned out to be the leading edge of an industry-wide musical revolution in Baroque music.

While Davis’ recording, swift and packing a tremendous choral punch, still has considerable merit, recent recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Paul McCreesh have been leading a merry band of contenders for the best recorded Messiah. None, however, has quite the combination of positive factors going for it that this new version from Naxos does.

To begin with, according to conductor Edward Higginbottom, it’s the “only modern account of Handel’s unique London performances in April and May 1751.” And what made those performances notable, Higginbottom says in his liner notes, is that the composer used, instead of women’s voices, treble voices drawn from the Chapel Royal for not only the choruses but the solo arias as well.

To recreate what Handel did two and a half centuries ago, Higginbottom selected three boys from the Choir of New College, Oxford, of which he is music director (for the tenor and bass soloists, he chose Toby Spence and Eamonn Dougan, both former clerks of the New College Choir).

The result is something quite unexpectedly triumphant: Quicksilver fast, and sparkling with jewel-like clarity, with a musical swing and a youthful exuberance that makes even the most stylistically alert and energetic of its competitors seem lead-footed by comparison. There is a moderate amount of embellishment which is elegant and delicious by turn, but never becoming so obtrusive as to distract from Handel’s magnificent musical core. The choruses are a constant delight: “His yoke is easy” and “All we like sheep” are so brilliant with an infectious sense of sheer joy.

And joy is what this performance delivers in such relentless quantity that each chorus, each aria and each recitative is a musical adventure you will eagerly await. Occasionally, in the choruses, they boys get ahead of themselves, but that is rare and, in a way, enjoyable too.

The soloists are also outstanding, particularly Spence who anchors the performance in a way that rarely happens when the tenor must share the stage with two illustrious women soloists. Only when he tries to be gentle, as in the opening recitative, does he let the side down; otherwise, Spence is splendidly thrilling and, when needed, heroic. Dougan, countertenor Iestyn Davies and the three marvelous treble soloists—Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones and Robert Brooks—show an equal appetite for the sounds of the words and the sense of the music.

Add an outstanding recording, made at St. John’s in London (just a touch dry but with beautiful vocal timbre and good spatial sense), and good liner notes, [and a bargain price!…Ed.] and you’ve got one of Naxos’ proudest achievements. In the service of such great music, and at this time of year, this new yet timeless Messiah is really something for which to thank owner Klaus Heymann and his talented, hard-working team.

– Laurence Vittes
 

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