G. F. Handel, Messiah, Sir Colin Davis, LSO

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The Tenebrae Choir

The Tenebrae Choir

G. F. Handel, Messiah (includes bonus DVD with interview with Sir Colin Davis)

Sir Colin Davis conductor
Susan Gritton soprano
Sara Mingardo alto
Mark Padmore tenor
Alastair Miles bass
Tenebrae Choir
London Symphony Orchestra

Recorded live, December 2006, Barbican, London
LSO Live, LSO0606, available as 2 CD/SACD + DVD discs or as download from iTunes, eMusic, or Amazon (USA) Click here for an excerpt.

Two of the best recordings of Messiah are among the most recent. They could not be more different; one is is an eclectic text performed by larger forces using modern instruments, Sir Colin Davis’ most recent version, a live performance recorded at the Barbican in December 2006, the other a performance of the Dublin version of 1742 by a small consort using historical performance practices; but they are unquestionably among the finest performances of Handel’s masterpiece ever, and only a listener who has a seated prejudice against one mode of performance or the other could have any reason to choose between them. One must have both. And don’t forget Malcolm Sargent’s classic 1945 performance with the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Huddersfield Choral Society, available in a superb transfer on Dutton Records, for something completely different!

I have chosen to review this magnificent live recording under Sir Colin Davis together with the equally cogent historically informed performance by the Dunedin Consort under John Butt, because they have appeared within a year of one another and because they are both of such superb quality. I do not intend to compare them in detail or to make a judgement between them. Rather I hope to point out what can be gained from both approaches. It is curious, if in juxtaposition Sir Colin’s version, with a reduced LSO playing modern instruments and a very up-to-date small chorus, the Tenebrae Choir,performing Sir Colin’s own edition, based on various versions performed by Handel in London, should seem somehow more “traditional” because he pioneered the modern approach to Messiah in his influential 1966-67 recording, also with the LSO. Sir Colin was one of the first to eschew the modern orchestrations which were almost universal at the time, as well as the Romantic rallentandi and phrasing which went with them. It was terrifically refreshing to hear this over-familiar fixture of the Christmas and Easter season with lighter textures, lithe, unpretentious tempi, and discreet use of ornamentation as in Handel’s day. At the same time Charles Mackerras’ recording was released, which went even further in this direction. The two revolutionized performance practice and paved the way for performances like the Dunedin Consort’s, which I have reviewed so enthusiastically. Of course, Sir Colin has experienced his own growth in this music alongside the progress of Handel studies.

Although Sir Colin’s singers indulge in and modern styles of vibrato and inflection, and the LSO’s textures are more robust, his approach actually has much in common with John Butt’s: both benefit from brisk tempi, crisp rhythms, transparency, and clear diction. While the LSO’s steel strings, reinforced with oboes and bassoons as in Handel’s London performances, cannot approach the variety of color possible with period strings alone, their precision and clarity is equally outstanding. Both show a vigorous sense of Handelian drama, and of its roots in Italian opera, although they go about it in different ways. Butt, following a meticulous study of text and score in the context of Handel’s operatic practice, emphasizes dramatic groups into which individual sections coalesce, while Davis builds conflict and resolution in a long line, extending over the course of each of the three parts, as well as over the whole. Both approaches are equally effective, as far as the modern, post-Wagnerian listener is concerned.

The four soloists deliver full-blooded performances in the grand Handelian tradition, however much their modern training and Sir Colin’s lack of pretension may restrain them from the extremes of their forebears. All four show exceptionally well-balanced voices in their individual ranges, bringing a consistency to their work as a group, and their diction is always fully intelligible. Susan Gritton’s soprano has a very appealing warm center, enhanced by a full but tempered vibrato. She approaches melody in short, expressive phrases, and uses ornament emotively, in a style which could work as well for Mozart as well as Handel or Bach. Sara Mingardo contributes a rich, characterful contralto, while her use of vibrato and chest is well-controlled, and her rhythm lively, which keeps her free from ponderousness. Mark Padmore, tenor, spins out expressive phrases with loving eloquence, but maintains a lively sense of rhythm. Alastair Miles is a pure bass with a consistent, dark sound of considerable weight. He puts himself into each note with force and intensity, to rousing effect in sections like ‘the trumpet shall sound…” His feeling for the long, yearning line serves him well in the B-section of that same aria.

The Tenebrae Choir, whom I have already praised enthusiastically for their contribution to Sir Colin’s recording of L’Enfance du Christ is truly extraordinary: their precise intonation and ensemble, their athletic flexibility in complex passages, and their warm response to Sir Colin’s direction all contribute to their splendid performance.

This is ultimately Sir Colin’s show, however. While he remains true to Handel’s score in spite of his “wickednesses” his individual stamp is unmistakable at every moment. As I mentioned, he prepared the edition himself, writing out ornaments, mainly to discourage excess, and indulging in a few idiosyncrasies of his own. He has even manipulated orchestration in two passages, although hardly in the spirit of a Beecham or a Sargent: he subtracts rather than adds in his “wickednesses,” as he calls them in the charming interview recorded on the supplementary DVD supplied with the CD’s. In No. 25 (“And with his stripes…”) and in the final Amen (No. 53b) he omits the orchestral accompaniment in the first section, not merely to make the most of the Tenebrae Choir’s extraordinary singing, but to deeply moving effect. In the latter section, when the orchestra, complete with trumpets and drums finally does join the choir after the string interlude, the effect is truly hair-raising, capable of convincing even a non-believer that there is no more noble expression of the Christian concept of the Resurrection than that music.

Technically the recording, produced as usual by James Mallinson and recorded by Classic Sound Ltd. is among LSO Live’s best, which is a very high standard indeed, limited only by the constraints of live recording, and these are slight. (Given a choice of the spontaneity of a live performance and sonic perfection, I believe the choice is obvious.) LSO Live have brought the art of live recording to a new level.

The supplementary DVD includes not only the interview mentioned above, but eleven excerpts from a BBC telecast. The producer, as usual today, attempts to enliven the presentation with ample, but not quite excessive inter-cutting among multiple cameras, mostly concentrating on the principles, but giving some idea of how the orchestra, choir, and soloists interact with Sir Colin, who seems particularly relaxed, enjoying the performance thoroughly, as if all the hard work had been done in rehearsal. The enthusiasm of the Tenebrae Choir is also vividly apparent. The sound notably lacks the spaciousness, dynamic range, and detail of the CDs.

This is the third and the greatest of Sir Colin’s recordings of Messiah, a work especially dear to him over many years. His first set a standard for modern performance practice. The second was even more enthusiastically received when it was first released, although, performed in Munich with a German chorus and orchestra, it is something of a noble experiment: a German accent, both in language and in musical execution, is indeed apparent. As in every one of his LSO live recordings, Sir Colin produces his latest statement from an ongoing learning process of (in some cases) over fifty years, and it is always worth hearing and more so. There is certainly no better modern instrument Messiahthan this.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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