INKPOT#43 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: HANDEL Messiah. The Sixteen/Christophers (Hyperion)
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
M E S S I A H
Lynne Dawson soprano
Catherine Denley alto
David James countertenor
Maldwyn Davies tenor
Michael George bassThe Choir and Orchestra of The Sixteen
performing on period instruments
directed by Harry Christophers
HYPERION Dyad CDD22019
2 discs [140’40”] budget-price
Recorded in 1976. Includes full libretto in English, French and German.
by Chia Han-Leon
The general mood of this Messiah is one of lightness. In this recording, The Sixteen (more than 16…) comprise a 20-piece orchestra with a 19-member choir. Though this may discourage those seeking a large-scale performance of the oratorio, the benefits of such a configuration are many, not least the clarity of the musical lines. Married with Christophers’s often straight, solid rhythms, the mode of the music here is very assured, if a little strict sounding at times. The recording is full and clean and at no point betrays its having being “recorded… during public performances”.
The speeds with which Christopher directs the music is generally more relaxed than one might expect from a period performance. Along with the slightly padded acoustics of the recording location (St John Smith’s Square), this contributes to the chamber-like intimacy of the set. You can hear this in contralto Catherine Denley’s “He was despised and rejected of men” [CD 1: track 24] – solemn but earnest; and “O thou that tellest good tidings” [1:9] – joyous yet pleasingly relaxed, without any hint of strain. At the same time, the grandeur of the big choruses is rarely compromised. The ensuing chorus on this track is warm and earnestly sung, as is “For unto us a child is born” [1:12] where the awkward stress on the word “For” is comfortably relaxed (read the detailed notes provided for more details).
The result of these qualities do subdue the dramatism of the score, but Christopher makes it up elsewhere by his sensitive moulding of dynamics, catching the ear with its musical personality. In “His yoke is easy”, the nicely balanced sections of the orchestra and choir are cleanly separated – you can hear the strings skipping comfortably with the beautiful organ continuo, while the choir, every run musical and clear, delightfully deliver their lines. A fitting close to Part I.
The one-minute Pifa (pastoral symphony) softly introduces the most gorgeous jewel of this recording: soprano Lynne Dawson (left). Here is a soprano who not only sings with impeccable assurance and beauty of tone, but makes each and every word in her lines a gem in itself. Every vowel is smoothly caressed with wonderful fluidity, every ending consonant is given its rightful place, thus moulding each word to melodic beauty. (Not everyone will like this vocal meticulousness, I suppose, but trust the English to sing their own language well, of course!)
Just listen to her recitative “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” – meltingly curvaceous. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” is the immediately proceeding example – listen to how she sings “behold, thy kingdom cometh unto thee” (she has a way with the last word in a line). Of all the English sopranos I know of, Ms. Dawson is simply the most titillatingly sexy – to the ear, of course. Even then, she is capable of contrasting grace and “meekness”, as in her unadorned but sincere “I know that my Redeemer liveth” [2:22].
Tenor Maldwyn Davies’s singing is likewise sure, though I wish he were a little more colourful and forceful, even fierce, with “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” [2:20] and the recitative “All theyyy that see him … LAUGH HIM TO SCORN(!)” [2:4] Countertenor David James is to my ears the weakest of the solo quintet. Simply no match for Andreas Scholl from the Harmonia Mundi/Christie set, James’s voice does not always sound easy on the ear, resulting in strained notes at the top. “He is like a refiner’s fire” [1:6] has little rhythmic drive or the palpable fireworks of Scholl’s performance. In “Thou art gone up on high” [2: 13], he is considerably more secure, but like Davies, lacks variety of tonal colour.
The well-known British bass Michael George demonstrates why he is still one of the best in English Baroque music circles. Where many bury their words in the trenches of their voices, George (who sang Elijah in Singapore in May 1997) is clear and his words easily discernible – an advantage well-matched by his powerful and focussed singing. His “Whyyyyyy do the NAtionS SO FUriously rage together?” [2:17] is stern and commanding as it should be, but somehow preserves a sense of civility – this is one of the most lyrical accounts of this arioso I’ve ever heard! In the middle of this aria, the line “The kings of the earth rise UP” is very stirring in its delivery.
Many of the finest contributions of this Messiah come from the choir. Divided 7:4:4:4 (male altos), each section is individually clear without detracting from the overall unity of the choruses’ architectural unity. Their enthusiastic singing is matched well by the unobscuring presence of the orchestra, as in the half-scurrying, half-chugging chorus “The Lord gave the word” [2:14] or the intricate and fast-paced “Let us break their bonds asunder” [2:18].
Indeed, disc 2 begins with a rousing but never heavy-handed “Surely he hath borne our griefs”, followed by a clearly drawn fugue on “With his stripes we are healed” and another ear-catching “All we like sheep”, with the singers almost playfully decrescendoing on the line “… have gone astray…”
Despite the relaxed tempo of “Hallelujah!” [2:21], Christophers produces a finely paced reading that does not sound either lethargic or sluggish. Although the drums are just a touch hard in tone, they pound grandly and brightly with the trumpets. Even then, the lead-up to the final “Hallelujah” is strong, with a satisfying little reverb at the end.
The penultimate chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” [2:30] begins rather relaxed in pace, but sounds much bigger than the 39 performers. Its buildup, gaining in speed, is effective and leads to an “Amen” [2:31] which is full of contrast between the quiet string musings and the loud trumpets-and-drums sections. Both create just the right atmosphere for the choir, itself building up to an ample and satisfying ending – the trumpets don’t trill as I like, but it is a rock solid conclusion to an unegotistical and carefully prepared Messiah.
This set is available at, or can be ordered from Beethoven Record House (Centrepoint), HMV (The Heeren) and Borders (Wheelock Place).
Rest in peace, victims of MI185.
042: 19.12.97; up.13.12.98 Chia Han-Leon