George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (CDs 1-2) [104.17]
Lynne Dawson (soprano); Hilary Summers (alto); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Alastair Miles, (bass); Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet); The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; The Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury
rec. 1994, live, Pieterskerk, Leiden, The Netherlands
Johannes-Passion (CD 3) [60.04]
Mária Zádori, Ibolya Verebics (sopranos); Judit Németh (mezzo); Charles Brett (counter-tenor); Martin Klietmann, Gábor Kállay (tenors); István Gáti, József Moldvay (baritones); Chamber Choir and Capella Savaria/Pal Németh
rec. no date listed, Savaria Museum, Szombathely, Hungary
La Resurrezione (CDs 4-5) [123.08]
Klaartje van Verlhoven (soprano) - Angelo; Stefanie True (soprano) - Maddalena; Kristine Gether (alto) - Cleofe; Marcel Beekman (tenor) - San Giovanni; Mitchell Sandler (bass) - Lucifero; Contrasto Armonico/Marco Vitale
rec. Autumn 2008, Oud-Katholieke Kerk, Delft, The Netherlands
Texts and translations not included
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94317 [5 CDs: 287.29]
The three performance included in this boxed set have all been released previously, two of them on other labels. Messiah, as performed by King’s College, Cambridge, has appeared on several labels. It was originally issued by Argo/Decca in October 1994, then resurfaced on Regis (Sept 2009) and appeared at least one other time on Brilliant Classics (Sept 2005). In January 2011 it was released by the House of Classics label which included a DVD of the audio performance. The Johannes Passion was originally a Hungaroton production (Sept 2005), and Brilliant Classics originally issued La Resurrezione in June 2009, as part of its continuing series of Handel’s Italian Vocal Works.
One might be concerned that this Messiah has appeared on so many labels because it is unsatisfactory. That is most certainly not the case. The choral work is consistently excellent, with superior intonation and clear diction though sometimes I yearned for those over-enunciated consonants that were cultivated by David Willcocks when he conducted the choir. Cleobury cultivates a unique sound from his boys that seems to minimize the “hootiness” that is such a normal part of the Anglican boy choir ‘signature’. His boys often sound disconcertingly like women! With few exceptions, the boy’s melismatic singing is admirably clear. Occasionally, the melismatic writing strains the ensemble singing in the tenor section. It is worth noting that this is a live recording of a single performance, with little editing and no apparent patch sessions. There are a few loud coughs, but the audience is never disruptive. The sound of the audience shifting in their seats, as well as the choir standing and sitting at the end of movements, remains. A few times we wait with Cleobury and the orchestra as a soloist finds his or her way to their proper position. None of this is overly distracting, and I liked knowing this was how it was without any fixes. It stands as a testament to the superior talents and professionalism of this choir.
The Brandenburg Consort serve as exceptionally sensitive accompanists, providing plenty of gusto for the festive choruses, as well as finding the proper balance and orchestral color for the soloists. Cleobury's tempos are well managed, neither plodding, nor unduly quick. The soloists are uniformly admirable. Lynne Dawson is dazzling in Rejoice Greatly and serenely confident in I Know that My Redeemer Liveth. Hilary Summers’ arias feature some delightful ornamentation, which often displays her impressive low register. Both men are in fine form, making the most of their big arias. Ainsley’s melismatic singing is exceptionally clear, and Alastair Miles’ dark timbre often adds an element of gravitas. His rendition of The Trumpet Shall Sound is a highlight, complemented by the fearless trumpet playing of Crispian Steele-Perkins. This performance might not be as dramatic or plumb the emotional depths as much as those by Gardiner, McCreesh and Christophers (his second reading on Coro), but this is a thoughtful and refreshing reading that is never less than engaging, and often a great deal more.
Including the Johannes-Passion in the boxed set is somewhat problematic, since the work is now considered by most scholars to be a misattributed to Handel. Apparently it was listed as the work on Handel by 19th-century musicologist Friedrich Chrysander, but in recent decades that attribution has been questioned. It is hard to hear any music that sounds truly Handelian. One of the most unconvincing aspects about the music is its lack of drama. Listen to his operas and you know Handel would have set these words with far greater dramatic intensity than what is heard here.
Capella Savaria’s performance under Pál Németh is very good, if a touch bland. The performance needs greater drive in the crowd scenes and in the dialogues between Pilate and Jesus. I can’t imagine returning to this music very often, as it rarely rises above the routine. Brilliant Classics should have found another work to include, or at the very least, been very clear about this work’s questionable attribution to Handel.
Luckily, La Resurrezione is unquestionably Handel, containing some of his most engaging writing. Contrasto Armonico is new to me, but on this hearing they are a first-rate group, the instrumentalists playing with exceptional refinement and beautiful tone. One aspect of their playing that stood out was how well they matched the breathing and articulation of the soloists. This is a group that really listens to one another and those they accompany. The soloists are all technically impressive and engaged with their words; the standout was bass Mitchell Sandler, who audibly enjoys his portrayal of Lucifero. Vitale’s tempos are, for the most part, convincing, though on occasion they seemed too cautious. I have not heard the rival Haïm performance on Virgin Classics, but that performance is about 10 minutes faster. Reading along with the libretto, it seems that recitatives and arias could be gathered together to create scenes, thereby creating greater dramatic impetus. Sometimes Vitale seems to be just moving from movement to movement, resulting in a loss of dramatic tension. Despite this, the overall interpretation is engaging and convincing and I am glad to have it on my shelves.
The CDs come in a solid cardboard box, with each CD in a card sleeve that includes movement and timing information. My set originally came with no liner-notes, but after writing to Brilliant Classics, I was supplied with a copy. They are most informative, addressing the issues of the Passion attribution, as well as the reason for adopting the lower pitch (A=392) in La Resurrezione.  I have stressed in previous reviews, that the price of these sets should attract people who are new to this music, therefore, the more they can learn about it, the better.
Texts are not included, but are available at the Brilliant Classics website. There I discovered that the texts for Messiah and Johannes Passion were in the original language only, while La Resurrezione has the original Italian alongside an English translation. To fully understand Handel’s brilliant word setting - again, it bears repeating that people new to classical music are more likely to purchase less expensive recordings - one needs to know what the words say. Surely the original Argo and Hungaroton releases included full texts and translations - why could they not be used for the website?
A desirable set then but Brilliant Classics do not serve their customers as well as they might by not including full texts and translations.  

David A. McConnell

Masterwork Index: Messiah 

A desirable set then but shame that there are not full texts and translations.