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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah, HWV 56 (new concert version by Sir Andrew Davis) [114:25]
Erin Wall (soprano); Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano); Andrew Staples (tenor); John Relyea (bass-baritone)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. live, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, December 2015
Stereo/Surround 5.0, CD stereo reviewed
CHANDOS SACD CHSA5176 (2) [52:45 + 61:40]

The first thing to say about this new Messiah recording is that it is, in all probability, the shortest ever. Part of the reason for this is that Sir Andrew Davis’s ‘new concert version’ makes a number of cuts ‒ which Chandos’s handsomely produced booklet really ought to tell us about, but doesn’t. In Part II Davis omits the recitative ‘Unto which of the angels’, the chorus ‘Let all the angels of God’ and the aria ‘Thou art gone up on high’; and in Part III we lack the recitative ‘Then shall be brought to pass’, the duet ‘O Death, where is thy sting?’, the chorus ‘But thanks be to God’ and the aria ‘If God be for us’. In other words, Davis cuts exactly the same numbers as Sir Malcolm Sargent used to in his own ‘concert version’, as recorded for example with the Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic in 1946. That Sargent performance takes more than half an hour longer, however. The disparity is due largely to the two conductors’ radically differing views on tempi. Sargent’s speeds are, by modern standards, very slow (to my ears almost unbearably so), whereas Davis’s, from ‘Comfort ye’ onwards, are decidedly on the brisk side ‒ and nothing wrong with that.

The really new and controversial aspect of this recording is, however, the orchestration. In his engaging booklet note, Davis says: “My aim was to keep Handel’s notes, harmonies, and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra in order to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements”. Hence the first part of the opening ‘Sinfony’ and the entire ‘Pifa’ are re-scored for wind band, and we have plenty of unfamiliar contributions from the harp, horns, trumpets, and various members of the percussion family ‒ such as cymbals, timpani, triangle, marimba and snare drum (the latter very prominently so in ‘Thus saith the Lord’). Everyone will have their own favourites and non-favourites. Personally I greatly enjoyed much of Davis’s writing for woodwind (for example in ‘All we like sheep’ and ‘But thou didst not leave’) and brass (try ‘He trusted in God’ or ‘Let us break his bonds’); but I really couldn’t cope with the tambourine in ‘The Lord gave the word’ or the sleigh-bells in the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. Occasionally, once the novelty had worn off, I found myself wishing that Sir Andrew would try a little less hard and let just one or two numbers speak for themselves; but, far more often, I was both impressed and delighted by the sheer fertility of his imagination.

No doubt some purists will wince at so interventionist an approach. Re-orchestrating Messiah has a distinguished history, however, going back at least as far as Mozart; and anyone who listens to Davis’s recording is bound, I think, to conclude that his version was a labour of love, rather than a matter of ostentation or self-indulgence. He himself writes: “Everything I have done instrumentally stems from the enormous respect, even awe, which I feel towards this supreme masterpiece.” I for one have no difficulty at all in believing him.

As to the forces used, they do not sound as inflated and ‘grand’ as one might expect. The booklet lists some 146 members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, but the impact they make is far from overwhelming – a consequence, one suspects, of their having been placed rather far away from the microphones. Nothing wrong with their intonation or agility though. Meanwhile the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is clearly at substantial but not full strength: the photos of one of the live performances from which the recording is taken show, for example, six cellos and three double basses; and overall they sound like an ensemble of, say, 60 or so, as distinct from the 92 whose names the booklet lists.

However innovative its text or performance style, the old adage remains true that a Messiah stands or falls by its soloists. Here I was particularly impressed by the bass-baritone John Relyea, whose voice seems to me near-ideal for what is a very difficult part, requiring both a full and vibrant top in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ and a good deal of saturnine darkness elsewhere. Relyea satisfies both requirements, and gives a ‘big’ performance in every respect. So, at least in vocal terms (she could make more of the words) does the mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, who brings a real, old-fashioned contralto-like richness to her part, but without sounding in any way matronly or wobbly. The tenor Andrew Staples offers a slightly nasal, very English tone which sounds a little alien in this context; but he is certainly more than adequate. Indeed the only element of vocal disappointment comes from the singer of whom I expected most, namely the soprano Erin Wall. I have greatly enjoyed her work in the past, but, especially in Part I, she sounds quite simply out-of-sorts, exhibiting an uncharacteristic level of vocal unsteadiness. She seems to improve on the second CD, however, so that ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ ends up being the highlight it should be.

Davis’s conducting is capable of repose and considerable depth, for example in ‘He shall feed his flock’, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ or ‘He was despisèd’; but above all he communicates a sense of joyous celebration, which is, after all, entirely appropriate for the piece. You get the impression that his enthusiasm for the project is infectious, and that all the performers are thoroughly enjoying, indeed relishing what they are doing. Not least for that reason I have no hesitation in recommending this as an enjoyable second or third Messiah for anyone’s collection. It is, for sure, too idiosyncratic ‒ and indeed truncated ‒ to be a first choice or an appropriate recording through which to learn the work. But if your palate needs refreshing after hearing too many Messiahs that sound pretty much identical, then go for it. You would be a hard-hearted listener indeed if you didn’t feel invigorated by what Davis has to offer.

Nigel Harris

Previous review: Nick Barnard



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