Colin Davis’s first Messiah recording set a standard for years to come. While not as “hip” as the later period performances were to become, it definitely gave the work a new, lean, and mean look despite the large chorus. Davis allowed very tasteful and well-considered ornamentation (and this at a time when it was getting out of hand—remember Basil Lam’s edition so admirably portrayed in the Charles Mackerras EMI recording?), his choral lines were sleek and tight, and his soloists (Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield, John Shirley-Quirk) were simply the best of breed among an already superbly populated conglomerate of singers. There were then and have been since many fine recordings, but this one definitely belongs in the hall of fame and is capable of not only giving great pleasure today, but also of proving us a model of how the work should be performed. Some regard it as a little bloated, and perhaps so; but who says that the current period doctrine is the last word on Messiah performance? Might we be complaining ten years from now of the astringent and nasal horrors of most period performances? (Come to think of it, we have been doing that for a while.) The point is that performance practice, like the theory of evolution, seems to be constantly evolving itself, and we may never know about certain specific questions, particularly as regards the size of the forces Handel considered optimal. This is where the instincts of great musicians come into play. Davis is such a musician.
After all, we have had so many attempts at this work in so many guises with so many theories of performance that it makes one’s head spin. For Sir Colin, it is now as it ever was—all about the spirit of the music. He dabbles now as he did then, using some of the same excellent ornamentation, a change here and there (for instance the dotted eighth and sixteenth notes in the accompaniment to The Trumpet Shall Sound instead of straight eighths), and even a little tampering (reducing string forces in places to a concertante contingent, and leaving them out with the chorus going it unaccompanied in a few places). As the interview in the DVD highlights shows, he simply doesn’t care; he looks at this work as he looks at all music, simply notes on many pieces of paper that have to be brought alive by the intervention of human beings. The musicality in this set is terrific, the Tenebrae Choir a marvel to behold, and the LSO playing like they never have.
But, with all of this said, is it really worth acquiring this set, especially if you have the older one? (There was an RCA set that he did that was not well received, and with good reason—it did not seem like his heart was in it.) Well, if you are like me, and collecting Messiahs is a way of life, you will have to sample this one. I probably have discarded as many as I have purchased over the years, and currently there are about 20 adorning my shelves. I could not live without Beecham, Andrew Davis, Colin Davis 1, Shaw (RCA), Hogwood, and the gloriously whacky Rene Jacobs, but I think I may have to add this recording to the list. The smaller choir (about 34 to 46 instrumentalists) gives an added lilt to this effort, and their declamations and diction are really terrific. But what I am happiest about is the LSO being willing to put Colin Davis’s final thoughts about this work on disc, and not fearing the use of modern instruments. This is a tighter ensemble, more focused and exceeding the 1966 version in clarity, though at the time that was one of the things I admired most about it. The sound then, though still holding up very well, does not have the warmth of this one.