Michael Schade, Gerald Finley, with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and
Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Deutsche
harmonia mundi Multichannel SACDs 72039 (2 discss, 2 hours, 22 mins.)
There is no shortage of outstanding recordings of Handel’s Messiah.
According to your taste, you can find Handel’s masterpiece on modern
instruments with a modern aesthetic (Colin Davis’s 1966 recording on
Philips, still notable for its razor sharp sound, quick as a flash
choral work and tremendous quartet of soloists led by John
Shirley-Quirk) or authentic instruments with an authentic aesthetic
(either Mark Minkowski’s 1997 version on Archiv, faster still than
Davis, or Paul McCreesh’s version for the same label of a year earlier,
while many regard John Eliot Gardiner’s 1983 version on Philips as the
best). And then there is Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
His 1982 recording was vintage Harnoncourt at his most excessive:
dramatic contrasts, details subsumed in the sweep of the musical
progress, exciting, almost tumultuous, a brilliant tour de force. This
new recording is its polar opposite: reflective, gentle, with an organ
continuo that soothes the nerves, and a quartet of singers that feature
elegance, technique and ornamentation but always to raise the spirit,
never merely to dazzle the ear. Not to mention a wonderfully
imaginative “Hallelujah” chorus that will most likely startle you
beyond any reasonable expectation.
The performance, recorded live in the Musikvereinssaal in Vienna last
December, benefits immensely from as much volume as your system can
comfortably afford, and expands confidently into the beautiful space.
The liner notes consists of a flow chart of the work and a few brief
comments on the edition, both by Harnoncourt, and a provocative essay
by Sabine Gruber, “Who was George Frideric Handel?” And while
Harnoncourt’s new version does not answer Ms. Gruber’s question
(indeed, adding together all the available Messiahs would not bring us
much closer to the answer), it is a remarkable response at a time when
its qualities of compassion and reflection should be prized very
– Laurence Vittes