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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (1741) [2:14:59]
Jennifer O’Loughlin (soprano), Diana Moore (alto), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Sidney Outlaw (bass)
Concert Artists of the Baltimore Symphonic Chorale
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Edward Polochick (harpsichord)
rec. 2016, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA
NAXOS 8.573798/9 [69:51+65:08]

Handel, ever the practical and business-minded composer, tailored and adapted his works according to where, and under what circumstances, they were to be performed. This accounts for the many versions of Messiah, some of them very different from what was performed for the first time in Dublin on 13 April, 1742. Handel studies in the 1950s led to a fundamental change in how the work was viewed. Emphasis changed from monumental and marmoreal to light and lively. The new philosophy was enshrined in two performances that appeared on rival labels, conducted by Colin Davis and by Charles Mackerras. Conductors’ views have evolved further since then.

This new version from Baltimore uses the edition by Handel scholar Watkins Shaw that was published by Novello as long ago as 1959. (This was a vocal score. Shaw’s edition of the full score followed six years later and was used by Colin Davis in his Philips recording of 1966.) But conductors tend to use these editions as a point of departure now, taking advantage of the freedom to insert ornamentation and other features. There is a surprise at the very outset of this performance, where the repeat of the Overture’s slow section is overlaid by a brilliant and florid violin solo, presumably played by Jonathan Carney, named in the booklet as the orchestra’s leader. The performance proceeds thereafter without anything particularly controversial, and whether you enjoy it or not will depend on individual taste. My overall impression is one of speed, but this is shown to be deceptive when comparisons are made. Whilst Davis adopted consistently slower tempi than does Edward Polochick here, I was surprised to find that the differences are often minimal. Richard Hickox (Chandos, 1991) is pretty swift too, but the real speed merchant is Paul McCreesh on Archiv, recorded in 1996 and using a performing edition of his own prepared from three different manuscript sources. The Gabrieli Consort numbers some twenty-four singers, and their virtuosity in the choruses is quite stunning. The Baltimore choir more than triples that number, and technically there is little to choose between them.

Many of the numbers follow each other with little, and frequently no, pause. This is a legitimate tactic, of course, but one that contributes to a rather breathless, hurried quality. Then there is the question of legato/staccato. I regret the loss, a consequence of the adoption of period practice, of much legato singing and playing in Baroque music. Nobody wants it to sound like Rachmaninov, but the reluctance to trace a true legato line is, for this, listener, frequently frustrating. There is plenty of legato singing in this performance, but many places where picking at notes seems to be the policy. The very first chorus, ‘And the glory of the Lord’, provides a good example. I find the two staccato quavers on the word ‘purify’ (‘And he shall purify’) mannered: they will surely irritate on repeated hearings. Ditto the detached notes on ‘shoulder’ and ‘Prince of Peace’ in ‘For unto us a child is born’. And as for the conductor’s way of articulating the words ‘All we, like sheep’, I find this positively perverse. All these choruses are brilliantly sung, though I do not always hear much joy in there. The opening phrase of ‘For unto us’ is surely the perfect musical equivalent of a smile, and all we who, like sheep, have gone astray, well, we are meant to be happy about it, at least until the final page when reality sets in. ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’ is launched at a rapid tempo, but McCreesh, even swifter, finds more lilt.

Polochick refuses to be constrained by current practice, however, and this is refreshing. Final cadences are often drawn out, and he does not hesitate to insert expressive devices when inspired to do so. This frequently takes the form of a sudden change of tempo, and often for only a few bars. Not all of these are convincing, however, and some of them are decidedly odd. As for tempo in general, some choices can seem extreme. The opening of ‘Worthy is the Lamb’, marked Largo by Handel, is very broad indeed, making for a huge difference when a faster tempo is indicated at bar 7. The ‘Amen’ chorus is taken very fast, quite losing, to my mind, the epic quality that makes it such a glorious culmination. The conductor then slows down enormously before the final page. Almost everybody does this, but I have never heard it done to this extent, and – though I hesitate before using the word – I find it grotesque. To this must be added the decision, unsanctioned in any score I have ever seen, to have the sopranos sing a top A on the final chord.

The booklet contains the sung texts, in English only, alongside the essay by Keith Anderson taken from Naxos’s earlier Messiah, by The Scholars, and recorded in 1992. Information about the artists reveals that the choir is a small professional group expanded by invitation when larger forces are required. They need fear no comparison. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays with great skill. Edward Polochick, it appears, directs from the harpsichord, an achievement in itself. Of the soloists, tenor Nicholas Phan’s pleasing voice and important sense of style are much in evidence. He is valiant in the face of such rapid tempi, yet I find him marginally less at ease here than in other recordings I have heard, some particularly fine Britten, for example. Sidney Outlaw is an imposing baritone who sings with great intelligence and power. ‘The trumpet shall sound’ works very well, though not everybody will be comfortable with the ornaments in the da capo section, and his voice rather lacks the very darkness required to be completely successful when telling us where ‘The people walked’. Soprano Jennifer O’Loughlin’s bright, silvery tone is very pleasing, and her coloratura passages are brilliant. Again, however, I wonder about some of her ornamentation, notably the rather tiresome tendency to elaborate final cadences into the top of the voice. A top D livens up the end of ‘If God is for us’, not one of Handel’s most inspired pages. The pick of the soloists is the mezzo, Diana Moore. Her singing reminds me of the great Helen Watts, and there is no greater praise than that in my book. At a sensible tempo, and even successfully integrating the faster, middle section, her reading of ‘He was despised’ is very moving.

William Hedley



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