HANDEL: Messiah – Carolyn Sampson, soprano/ Daniel Taylor, alto/ Benjamin Hulett, tenor/ Peter Harvey, bass/ Stuttgart Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra/ Frieder Bernius, conductor – Carus (2)

by | Oct 20, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

HANDEL: Messiah – Carolyn Sampson, soprano/ Daniel Taylor, alto/ Benjamin Hulett, tenor/ Peter Harvey, bass/ Stuttgart Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra/ Frieder Bernius, conductor – Carus Multichannel SACD 83.219 (2 discs), 139:09 *** [Distr. by Albany]:

Why not another Handel Messiah? They undoubtedly will continue coming as long as mankind draws breath, and why not? The work is an undeniable masterpiece, and I could hear it forever and never tire of it. Frieder Bernius has one of the most outstanding Mendelssohn cycles of recent memory underway, and now turns his attention to the gem of English choral tradition. He cheats a little—all of the soloists are English and American. The Germans play this music very well, and there is nothing to complain about in their execution, as in the Mendelssohn series. But here the compliments must end.

The choir is a curious one, using female singers crooning sans vibrato—a very English boy choir sound—and the altos, save one, appear to be all male countertenors. This gives the choral tone a very matronly and sedate color, one that spends a lot of time in the middle spectrum of dynamics. While the orchestra is easily able to make these contrasts, the choir has a lot more trouble, and the result is a performance of little dramatic contrast and a lot of the same ‘ol same ‘ol. I detect little enthusiasm for this music in the choral singing (though technically impeccable), most of it of a rather sluggish and subdued feeling. The soloists are uniformly good, Carolyn Sampson having already proved herself in this music in other places, notably my favorite all-time Messiah, with Harry Christophers and the Sixteen on Coro. I have admired Daniel Taylor in other places as well, though a countertenor can rarely compete with a genuine female alto, and Peter Harvey turns in one of the most turgid and uninspired readings of “The Trumpet shall sound” that I have ever heard.

The SACD sound is very good and spacious, though the dynamic restrictions placed on the choir and hence orchestra as well keeps it from really projecting like we might wish. If you want a period Messiah on SACD, go for the unusual but always exciting Jacobs on Harmonia mundi; Hogwood offers a fine “traditional” (can we finally say that now?) reading on l’Oiseau Lyre on period instruments as well, and for a excellent traditional reading the Robert Shaw on RCA has never been bettered, while Colin Davis offers a wonderful follow up to his classic Philips reading on an SACD LSO Live. Unless you are a Messiah completist, I’d pass on this one.

— Steven Ritter

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