What a quandary this recording presents! Rene Jacobs is of course one of the premier period specialists of the day, and his recent issues have been garnering accolades from many quarters. And to be sure, there are some superlative moments in this Messiah, replete with highly musical effects and some startlingly original concepts. Yet at the same time there are numerous problems for anyone wanting a Messiah for everyday use, and some plain badly-judged moments that stick with you forever on a recording. Almost all of the period recordings have problems of one sort or the other, and I am not sure that this one fares any worse than those, yet at the same time these recordings offer new insights into old, staid traditionalism that can prove quite illuminating, though some of them don’t convince over the long haul.
Let’s start with the orchestra. The Freiburger Barockorchester is a fine group, though very aggressive in tone and rather fierce in certain of Handel’s already-energetic passages. It almost reminds me of the early days of period performance where players had not yet learned to tone down the terror that those little gut strings could produce, and the winds were—well, let’s not talk about them. Generally speaking, the orchestra is fully professional (and the winds for the most part are excellent) if not the last example of suavity. The Choir of Clare College is essentially a group of spectacularly trained college students, all very young if one can judge by the picture in the booklet, yet probably familiar with this music since early children.
But the orchestra predominates in this recording, and there are a lot of times when I cannot get the full effect of the choir, with important details in many of the melismatic passages lost. This is especially annoying when trying to hear the articulation in the numerous sixteenth note runs that are the backbone of the full choir numbers. On the other hand, there are many times when the choir explodes in a fantastic panoply of sound, a youthful vigor that inspires one to hear the music so loved and adored with completely fresh ears.
Tempos are as variable as any of the period recordings, meaning some slow, most fast, and quite a few blazingly fast. Every valley may be exalted, but here it is also a place to be sprint through, with the sense of reverence lost. ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’ is so fast that the choir seems to be uttering “Lettuce, lettuce, lettuce”. But the sequence of ‘And with His stripes’ and ‘All we like sheep’ is beautifully done, word painting transferred to music in a memorable manner.
The singers are a mixed bunch (not unusual) with countertenor Lawrence Zazzo and bass Neal Davies stealing the show. In fact, ‘The trumpet shall sound’ is given one of the best performances I have ever heard, Davies’s voice stunningly brilliant with some wonderful baroque trumpet work by Friedemann Immer. Yet the written-in ornaments for trumpet at the end of the sacred ‘Hallelujah’ chorus are played with little confidence and out of tune. Jacobs seems inspired in his ornaments in certain places, and full of willful affectations in other instances. His use of trills in the choral lines can be very exciting, but his penchant for dynamic swells (which feel rather whimsical) become predictable and even dreaded after a while. And those used to harpsichord continuo, a large part in any Messiah performance, might welcome the use of the lute as a substitute—until they realize that this lute practically takes over the whole thing, and miked at an artificially high level. But there is also a freshness and vivid realization of this score (the 1750 Handel-approved version), and it is apparent right from the start that Jacobs has given this work a lot of thought, and is trying very hard to say something new and different.
For many people of course, this is not always welcome. Messiah has become such a staple of not only the classical world, but of the man in the street for so long, everyone has an opinion on how the work should sound. Just think of how many times it is given worldwide every year! If I heard this performance in concert, I would have been thrilled to my toes. As a permanent record, I am not so sure how well it will hold up.
Hanoncourt’s recent recording (also 5.0 SACD) is another case of ups and downs, but the sincerity of his traversal comes through in every bar, with forces at least the equal of these, though the sound here—the most spectacular SACD Messiah yet recorded—gives this the edge. McCreesh now has his 1997 recording issued in SACD, but that recording doesn’t sound that much better than the CD release. It has variable tempos and excellent singing. Some people like Gardiner—not I— and Christie is also highly praised for his clarity-laden French recording with some excellent soprano work. Hogwood, the pioneer in this piece on period instruments, still stands up very well indeed, and might stand as the period benchmark, despite the boy choir.
On modern instruments, I prefer Shaw as perhaps the standard (RCA), Davis (Philips), Mackerras (EMI—the Basil Lam edition that is highly ornamented), Andrew Davis for an excellent big band reading in Toronto (EMI), and Beecham because, well, it’s just such great fun, though hardly for everyday use. All of these have a spirituality and emotional quality missing from most of the period readings, though Hogwood, Harnoncourt, and even Jacobs have their moments. Despite the fantastic sound—and it really is amazing—this could not serve as an only recording, though it could perhaps serve that role as a period recording. But who among us can live with only one Messiah?
— Steven Ritter