23 November 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Elisabeth Söderström, Swedish soprano (7 May 1927 – 20 November 2009)

Elisabeth Söderström, soprano

There are in the history of opera those few artists who become not merely celebrated singers of their own times but are remembered by subsequent generations as pioneers or agents of change, their work forever identified with a particular composer, a style, or a role.  For the towering Wagnerian heroines, there was Kirsten Flagstad; for bel canto, Maria Callas; for Baroque music, Dame Janet Baker.  Thus, when one thinks – and, indeed, that one thinks at all – of the operas of Leoš Janáček, it is impossible not to remember the work of Elisabeth Söderström, the beautiful Swedish soprano who through riveting performances and a series of standard-setting studio recordings with Sir Charles Mackerras for DECCA brought to Janáček’s operas the appreciation they deserved but, prior to Ms. Söderström’s work, had rarely received outside of Prague and Bratislava.

Born in Stockholm, Ms. Söderström’s earliest musical studies were undertaken in her native city, leading to a debut at the young age of twenty in Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne at the Drottingholm Palace Theatre.  The music of Mozart would figure prominently in Ms. Söderström’s career, facilitating her 1959 Metropolitan Opera debut as Susanna and culminating in a recording of the Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro for Otto Klemperer (with whom she also recorded a monumental account of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis) that, despite the recording’s defects, many still consider a pinnacle of interpretation of the role.  An element of traditional Scandinavian coolness gave Ms. Söderström’s operatic work an air of aristocratic restraint, a quality that proved revelatory when she sang Debussy’s Mélisande for Pierre Boulez at Covent Garden.  The Sony recording, with the fine and underappreciated American tenor George Shirley as Pelléas, that resulted from the 1969 – 70 Covent Garden production (finally reissued by Sony earlier this year) likewise remains an important milestone in the interpretation of Debussy’s scores on records.

In addition to her unique interpretive insights, Ms. Söderström’s work was marked by uncommon versatility, her repertory ranging from Monteverdi (including an unsurpassed recording of Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea for Nikolaus Harnoncourt) to contemporary works.  In mainstream repertory, she was one of the few artists ever to sing Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (she quipped that, when her upper register began to fade, she would also take on Baron Ochs), triumphantly returning to the MET roster in the spring of 1983 after a two-decade absence for an American tour as the Marschallin.  She returned to the MET in the 1983 - 84 season to sing Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, a largely thankless role in which many sopranos fail to make an impression.  Of Ms. Söderström’s performance, Irving Kolodin wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature that ‘in the taxing role of Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmarm who tries somehow to rescue Grimes from his fated future, other MET casts have had a few who were good-looking and another one or two who were well-known.  Söderström adds to excellent sound and a fine appearance a distinction that most others have lacked: the capacity to evoke an Ellen whom Grimes professes to love, for all his incapacities to overcome obstacles between them.’  It was as the aging Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama that Ms. Söderström gave her last performance at the MET on 15 April 1999, having come out of retirement (as she said in interviews at that time) because of her desire to work with Plácido Domingo, who sang Gherman in the MET’s production.

Throughout her career, Ms. Söderström’s work was noted for its display of stunning insights, her reserve and slightly dry timbre making the flashes of full-throated passion and pathos all the more thrilling.  As Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, she was to the life both the poised country bourgeoise (and thus a suitably grand consort for Prince Gremin) and the young girl in the first flushes of an extraordinary love.  The dramatic profundity and vocal precision of her operatic work were equally evident in her concerts and recitals, which took her all over the world.

Ms. Söderström’s artistic home base was the Royal Swedish Opera, where she sang frequently during the decades when she was not appearing at the MET.  The mother of three sons, Ms. Söderström devoted herself to her children’s upbringing, mostly taking on engagements in or near Sweden whilst her sons were at school.

As expansive as her stage repertory, Ms. Söderström’s recorded legacy includes such landmarks as the complete songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff, accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy, but her discography is dominated by her Janáček portrayals: the title roles in Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová and Emilia Marty in Vĕc Makropulos.  In each of her Janáček recordings Ms. Söderström shone with expressive radiance, fully introducing these fascinating scores to Western listeners who knew them only from infrequently-circulating Supraphon recordings, but with her intense, disturbing performance in Věc Makropulos she created one of the true treasures of recorded opera, a paragon worthy of inclusion with Flagstad’s Isolde, Callas’ Norma, and Schwarzkopf’s Donna Elvira.

An achievement even more meaningful than her long career was Ms. Söderström’s six-decade marriage with her husband, Sverker Olow, whom she married in 1950.  Ms. Söderström, who succumbed on 20 November in Stockholm to several years of complications from a stroke, is survived by Mr. Olow and their three sons.

It is rare that an artist sings the breadth of repertory that Elisabeth Söderström sang during her career, but it is even rarer that an artist gives memorable performances in every role within that spectrum.  It is thus that Ms. Söderström is best remembered, as one of twentieth-century opera’s greatest but least conceited pioneers and agents of change.

Elisabeth Söderström in the title role of Janáček's JENŮFA

17 November 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Thomas Forde, bass-baritone

Thomas Forde, bass-baritone

Maria Callas once said that ‘an opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down.  It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.’  This, to those who love the genre as participants or observers, expresses the sensation central to the operatic experience: a lingering fascination, a feeling of having taken part in a performance that began and ended but was strangely without beginning and ending.  Opera at its most engaging transports the listener to what Ivor Novello called the ‘Land of Might-Have-Been,’ a space somewhere between dreams and reality in which it is not important whether one truly believes the things opera asks one to believe as long as the emotional responses are genuine.  Implausibility fades into insignificance in the wake of a dedicated artist’s performance, and a listener’s surrender to the suspension of reality indeed remains part of his life long after the curtain falls.

Many writers have suggested that, as the genre in which the elemental aural and visual veins of human creativity converge, opera is the zenith of performing arts.  In this confluence of artistic lifeblood, the senses are seduced collectively.  Yet the work of an operatic artist is more difficult for this because the listener hears him, sees him, and strives to know what are those words he sings.  His task is to reach from the stage to take the listener’s hand, to banish doubt, and to lead his listener from the mundane to the Might-Have-Been.  The thrill of opera is born of the frequency with which artists fail at this task: when an artist succeeds, when there is for some period of time nothing else in the world but what one sees on the stage before one’s eyes, it is sorcery; the sorcery of Callas and of Opera.

When Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera presented Puccini’s La Bohème in autumn 2008, it would have been natural to expect any sorcery to originate with Mimì and Rodolfo, the young lovers struggling with poverty and fatal illness.  The work of an important artist emerges from its surroundings even if he has only a single line to sing, however, and the heart of Skylight’s Opera Bohème was Colline, sung by young American bass-baritone Thomas Forde.  Colline is (or should be) the pillar upon whom his suffering friends lean, exuberant and grave in turn.  In far too many productions, however, Colline’s frustrated philosophizing is confused with bitter irony, discrediting to a great extent the dignity with which Puccini infused the role: his little aria of farewell to his overcoat (‘Vecchia zimarra’) may not be top-drawer Puccini, but the sentiment with which Colline resolves to pawn his coat in order to buy medicine for the dying Mimì, along with his entreaty to Schaunard to allow Rodolfo and Mimì to be alone with one another in what he knows will be their last moments together, prepares the listener for the emotional impact of the final scene.  Colline is a sharp-tongued but deeply caring character, and Skylight Opera’s Bohème benefited enormously from the Colline of Thomas Forde, in whose performance it was clear that love for his friends is as central to Colline’s character as acerbic wit.

Thomas Forde as Angelotti in Puccini's TOSCA at Dallas Opera

Having earned his Master of Music degree from the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston and his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bass-baritone Thomas Forde has embarked on an exciting career marked by vocal beauty and natural gifts for open-hearted, dramatically convincing performing.  This journey began with apprenticeships with several of America’s most prestigious programs for young artists, including those at Central City Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Utah Festival Opera.  Following these experiences, Mr. Forde was invited to sing in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Turandot, productions of Tosca and Salome at Dallas Opera, and Shreveport Opera’s La Traviata.  ‘I remember looking out into the 3,800-seat house of the Dallas Opera, and thinking, “How am I here?”’ Mr. Forde says of his early mainstage engagements.  ‘I was lucky that each role was appropriate for the timing in my life.  However, I missed the feeling of having a teacher and a coach that I could regularly approach for guidance.  I was learning a whole new set of skills by being out in the real world, but at twenty-four years old I knew I wanted to go back into the young artist scene and have a sense of stability in this crucial time of development.’

Mr. Forde’s desire to continue his development as a singer under the auspices of a program for young artists was fulfilled when he received an invitation to join the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program, a superb institution that has contributed to the shaping of the careers of such fine singers as Lawrence Brownlee, Brandon Jovanovich, and Indra Thomas.  ‘I had admired and longed to be a part of [the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program] since I was in my undergraduate experience,’ Mr. Forde says.  ‘Seattle Opera was a place where I confronted what I was really having issues with at the time.  I was still fairly young in the game of bass voice development, and the repertoire that I was assigned [at Seattle] was challenging, yet appropriate.  It was a place where I was constantly pushed to attain the next level of performance.’  With the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, Mr. Forde sang the role of Snug the Joiner in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  ‘I learned an immense amount of skills regarding musicality, diction, and stage presence from people I had admired for a very long time,’ Mr. Forde recollects.

In addition to his work in Seattle, Mr. Forde also gained valuable exposure to the work of established singers by participating in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program.  ‘In my youth,’ Mr. Forde recalls, ‘I knew nothing about singing opera.  I had never attended an opera until I was in college.  I had taken voice lessons in high school, but I always saw myself pursuing acting with a cross-over into music theatre.’  During his tenure in Santa Fe, Mr. Forde observed performances by artists whose work shaped his conceptions of operatic singing and acting.  Especially vivid in his memory are performances by Christine Brewer, Natalie Dessay, Dimitri Pittas, and Patricia Racette.  ‘It was such a lesson,’ he states, ‘to watch Natalie Dessay sing her first Traviata.  In another sense, I learned what she has to go through every day to be at that level when she gave a Masterclass about the singer’s life.  It is an insane amount of dedicated work ethic.’

A great influence on Mr. Forde’s development of his vocal technique and individual approach to singing was introduced by his collegiate voice teacher, Ronald Hedlund, who Mr. Forde credits as being ‘the first [person] to calm [his] fears about taking a road into singing opera.’  Mr. Hedlund gave Mr. Forde a recording of the legendary Ukrainian bass Alexander Kipnis.  ‘I put [the disc] in my stereo when I got back to the dorm and listened to Kipnis sing “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra.  I hadn’t translated the aria as of yet, but I could hear from his coloring of different phrases and his use of dynamics that it was an incredibly pained and emotional piece of music.  He was one of the great basses, who sang with his true tone at all times.  He never darkened the tone, and he was not afraid of singing with emotion.  At times I think I need to try [to] shake the walls of the theater with each phrase, but whenever I go back and listen to Kipnis, I am taught a new lesson about singing.’

Thomas Forde as Antonio in Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO

This sense of subtlety, derived from the music and text rather than the size of the venue in which he sings, was evident in Mr. Forde’s Milwaukee Colline, of which he says, ‘[Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre] wasn’t a huge space, but there are a lot of intimate moments in a show with such a large chorus and so much going on during most parts of the opera.  You have to know your body really well, which is something I am focusing a lot on right now.  Your posture and your use of even small gestures can be so effective on any size stage.  I find the choices of whether to turn quickly or turn slowly, how I walk across the stage, or how I stand to directly effect whether the audience “gets” what I am trying to say to them. If I really have a clear idea of the character and the text, all of those things will start to come naturally.’  Adopting this close attention to the nuances of the characters he portrays through music and gesture as a critical aspect of his personal philosophy on performing, Mr. Forde will align this dramatic analysis to his easy, beautiful vocalism for Mozart’s Figaro in Tacoma Opera’s March performances of Le Nozze di Figaro.

Like many young singers, especially those of a Fach with relatively few truly excellent younger singers to its credit, Mr. Forde is mindful of the course his career should take in order to realize the full potential of his voice.  ‘Most of [the roles that] I have been offered have been appropriate,’ he reflects.  ‘One of the great things Seattle Opera encouraged me to do was to sing repertoire that would encourage youthful bass singing.  I started to sing a lot more Handel, Mozart, and even Puccini.  I was starting to sing repertoire that suited my personality and voice as a singer in [his] mid-twenties.’  Mr. Forde is fully conscious of the ambiguous nature of singing auditions for opera companies, many of which have specific preconceptions about the types of singers they wish to engage for particular roles, as well as problematic expectations for casting in future seasons.  He observes, ‘The challenge I have is that I have the capability to sing Sarastro [in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte] and Raimondo [in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor], but I am usually not what [companies] are looking for just yet.  My voice is still gaining color and timbre as I progress, but I am often viewed as being able to sing Colline, Figaro, Masetto, or Giovanni at this point in time.’  He adds, with characteristic humility, ‘I would never want to get a job because a company didn’t have any other choice.  It took me a while to realize when I walk into an audition that I don’t have the responsibility to show a company or a young artist program what kind of singer I am going to be in ten years.’

Judiciously building a career that has already garnered praise for the strength of his acting, the heart of Mr. Forde’s artistry is the pure tonal allure of his voice.  Possessing a veritable spectrum of colors that present a great wealth of dramatic possibilities that continues to broaden as his career progresses, Mr. Forde’s voice is youthfully vibrant but also plush, suggesting opportunities in a wide-ranging repertoire.  Hearing Mr. Forde’s voice in Italian repertory, it is easy to imagine his voice in time bringing great eloquence to Verdi’s ‘O tu, Palermo’ (I Vespri Siciliani) and ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ (Don Carlo), as well as the aria that helped to launch his interest in opera, ‘Il lacerato spirito.’  ‘I would love to have the chance to sing much more bel canto and Romantic music as my singing future moves forward,’ Mr. Forde says, adding that the music of Verdi and Wagner is ‘music I [know] in my bones I [will] sing one day.’  His early progress displays every requirement for the vocal and dramatic adaptations necessary to graduate into different, heavier repertory.  ‘There will never be another Sam Ramey…but [young basses are] all trying!’ he jokes.  Mr. Forde comes nearer to that mark than most of his colleagues owing to the panache and cantante quality of his singing.

Above all, Mr. Forde exhibits that quality that not only most significantly contributes to a singer’s artistry but also endears him to audiences: a palpable, almost contagious joy in singing.  ‘A voice is not an instrument you can turn off or leave at home.  If you’re like me, you find yourself singing or warming up all the time and not even noticing it after a while,’ Mr. Forde suggests.  Even while acknowledging the logistical challenges of pursuing a career that requires worldwide travel and virtually eliminates the possibility of having a single ‘home base,’ in addition to the emotional stresses endured by the artist and those who love him, Mr. Forde is keenly aware that the path he travels is the correct one.  ‘I love to sing, and I think that the reason I can be happy and smile so much during the process is that I know how lucky I have been so far. I can’t imagine anything else,’ he says.  Those who are fortunate enough to have heard him sing know that luck plays a minimal part in the success of this young artist: Thomas Forde is that rare singer who does not merely sing but enchants, a true operatic sorcerer.

Thomas Forde (right) as Wotan in Seattle Opera Young Artists Program's SIEGFRIED AND THE RING OF FIRE

The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to Mr. Forde for his incredible candor and kindness in contributing to this article, as well as for his assistance in providing the photographs used.

Click here to visit Mr. Forde’s official website.

Mr. Forde is represented by Kristin Cowdin of Guy Barzilay International Artists Management.

16 November 2009

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Recital by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano (Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; 14 November 2009)

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

One of the foremost hallmarks of a great artist is the instinctive knowledge of when the time has come to bid a fond farewell to singing.  Many performers go on singing far too long or else subject their admirers to ridiculously endless schedules of ‘last’ performances that tarnish memories of their voices in prime condition.  Still, it is always with sadness that one says goodbye to an artist with whose work one has been acquainted for an extensive period of time, and there was regret even among those who would never admit it when rumors circulated that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa had reached the decision to end her singing career in order to focus her energy on fund-raising and developing new generations of New Zealand artists.

The Washington Performing Arts Society, the sponsor of Ms. Te Kanawa’s recital on Saturday evening, billed the event as her ‘final D.C. recital.’  Her appearances in the Metropolitan Opera’s spring 2010 revival of the Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (in the speaking role of the Duchesse de Krakenthorp, which Ms. Te Kanawa has stated that she will sing in part) have been acknowledged as her farewell to the MET.  In the course of brief remarks during her Kennedy Center recital on Saturday evening, however, Ms. Te Kanawa indicated that she may be rethinking her decision to curtail her singing career: at the age of sixty-five and enjoying both physical and vocal health, she suggested that Washington may well hear her again.  The slightly-less-than-capacity audience in Kennedy Center’s 2,400-seat Concert Hall received Ms. Te Kanawa’s subtle announcement with considerable enthusiasm.

Accompanied by the expert pianist Brian Zeger, known to audiences of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee broadcasts for his contributions to the ‘Opera Quiz’ segments, Ms. Te Kanawa offered an expansive programme that drew upon the full range of repertory familiar from her long career.  Mr. Zeger displayed superb versatility, adapting his playing to match the styles of each segment in Ms. Te Kanawa’s programme.  Mr. Zeger played especially well in songs by Claude Debussy and Franz Liszt, and he brought eloquence and polish to songs by Canteloube (the familiar Chants d’Auvergne, Ms. Te Kanawa’s DECCA recording of which remains one of the label’s best-selling releases) and Richard Strauss – predictable fare, considering Ms. Te Kanawa’s long associations with this music.

It was a very welcome surprise that Ms. Te Kanawa chose to open her recital with a segment of four selections from Baroque operas by Händel and Vivaldi.  Few sopranos of any generation would choose to start an evening with Cleopatra’s towering ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Händel’s Giulio Cesare, one of those remarkable arias in which overwhelming emotion erupts through Händel’s beautiful, time-suspending music.  Ms. Te Kanawa sang both this and the more predictable ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Händel’s Rinaldo with lovely tone and attention to the text.  The sprightly aria ‘Io son quel gelsomino’ from Vivaldi’s opera Arsilda, regina di Ponto was the least convincing number in the set, its roulades approximated.  Remarkable, though, was Ms. Te Kanawa’s singing of ‘Care selve’ from Händel’s Atalanta, a brief arietta so fetching that its very brevity seems unfair to the listener.  In this number, the legendary Te Kanawa magic emerged, the words on the breath and unexaggerated and the tone floated hypnotically.  For Baroque purists, there was even a well-shaped, genuine trill.  Ms. Te Kanawa’s engagement with Baroque repertory during the prime of her operatic career was slight, but for the two minutes of ‘Care selve’ she displayed a rare understanding of the qualities that can make even a brief Händel aria unforgettable.

Equally beguiling was Ms. Te Kanawa’s soft singing throughout the recital, particularly in Reynaldo Hahn’s pseudo-Baroque ‘À Chloris’ and the other French numbers, including a beautiful mélodie by Fauré.  Diction and rhythm lagged somewhat in these and in songs by Puccini and Wolf-Ferrari, to which Ms. Te Kanawa brought compensatory charm.

Ms. Te Kanawa will return, perhaps for the last time (as has been widely reported in the press: Ms. Te Kanawa has made no definitive comment on the matter other than to state that she is not retiring), to her signature role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier in Cologne in April 2010.  The music of Strauss has been central to Ms. Te Kanawa’s repertory since the beginning of her international career.  A certain measure of the flexibility familiar from her studio recordings and mid-career performances of Arabella, Capriccio, and Rosenkavalier is now missing, but Ms. Te Kanawa retains the innate knowledge of how to deal with Strauss’ Lieder, some of which are virtually operas in miniature.  As ever with this artist, musical values were given greater prominence than detailed attention to nuances of the text, but the quality of the singing justified the emphasis on vocalism.

Ms. Te Kanawa was joined by Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of the Gospel Choir, an ensemble comprised of District-area schoolchildren under the direction of Stanley J. Thurston, for the ‘Pie Jesu’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and César Franck’s ‘Panis Angelicus.’  The obvious joy in singing displayed by the Choir was delightful, and they complemented Ms. Te Kanawa’s singing with their own full-bodied, smoothly-blended tone.

Ms. Te Kanawa brought the evening to a close with two encores, both of them nods to her musical roots.  The first item was the aria, so familiar as to risk banality, ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, a piece that Ms. Te Kanawa famously sang on the soundtrack of the Merchant/Ivory film A Room with a View.  The exquisite poise remains intact, the top A-flats floated with something near the erstwhile authority.  The second piece, the Maori folksong ‘Po Kari-Kari Ana,’ sung a cappella, was simply magnificent, with Ms. Te Kanawa providing her most radiant singing of the evening.  It was a sublime ending to an evening that provided many glimpses of a legendary singer as she was at the top of her form.

Whether or not Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will be heard again in the Washington area, she left the audience for Saturday evening’s recital with decidedly pleasant memories of her work.  This recital was not an occasion for achieving extraordinary interpretive heights, but Ms. Te Kanawa reminded her listeners that singing is, above all, about the voice.  Though not what it once was, Ms. Te Kanawa’s voice remains a beautiful, even lyric soprano that has been preserved through a long career through careful choices of repertory.  Ms. Te Kanawa quipped during the recital that her programme was dominated by slow songs because she likes them, but these intimate pieces suit her voice at this point in her career very well.  All was not perfect, but there was plentiful evidence that Oscar Hammerstein II was right after all: even in the late autumn of her career, there is nothing like a Dame.

Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

08 November 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – MESSIAH (Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton; Hyperion)

Händel: MESSIAH (Hyperion)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Messiah, HWV 56: J. Doyle, I. Davies, A. Clayton, A. Foster-Williams; Polypony; Britten Sinfonia; Stephen Layton [recorded in St John’s, Smith Square, London, on 22 – 23 December 2008; Hyperion CDA67800]

The annual approach of Advent carries with it a certain dread for many musicians and music lovers for it is known that, in those days between American Thanksgiving and Christmas, virtually every chorister – amateur and professional – from Sydney to Seattle turns his attention to Messiah. Though he surely recognized the quality of the score he had produced, it is doubtful that even Händel at his most ambitious could have imagined the wide-ranging exposure his oratorio would enjoy in the centuries to follow its 1742 premiere in Dublin. Wherever English is spoken, Messiah is a part of the collective musical conscience, an integral element of a pervasive cultural ancestry that shapes artistic perceptions, whether native or adopted. Separated from its unique significance for English-speaking audiences and its Christian indoctrination, Messiah remains a landmark in Western music. However many Messiahs one has heard, a genuinely great performance reveals anew the power of Messiah to impress and move.

Still, a sense of Messiah fatigue is difficult to avoid, especially with the glut of recordings on the market. Particularly with the emergence of the Händel Renaissance during the past three decades, many conductors active in the field of historically-informed performance practices have committed their individual interpretations of Messiah to disc. The release of Christopher Hogwood’s L’Oiseau Lyre recording (using the 1754 Foundling Hospital version of the score) represented a turning point in the Messiah discography: with the exception of Sir Andrew Davis’ Toronto recording for EMI, the age of the big-boned, massive-force Messiah recordings was at its end. Messiah is problematic even for period-practice specialists because it exists in several versions that variously assimilate and discard changes made by Händel for different performers and venues. There is no single definitive version (or edition), ensuring varieties of approach and content among Messiah’s many recordings, but this cannot entirely eradicate the weariness of the saturated market. Thus, excitement at the release of a new recording of Messiah is an exceptionally rare commodity.

When hearing Hyperion’s new recording, a souvenir of the 2008 installment in Polyphony’s fifteen-year tradition of performing Messiah at St John’s, Smith Square during the Christmas season, twinges of excitement are undeniable. Conductor Stephen Layton clearly possesses both affection and respect for Händel’s score, qualities that are evident throughout this performance. Presiding over forces of proportions (twenty-four players, including harpsichordist and organist, and thirty-one choristers) that are likely similar to those employed by Händel, Maestro Layton offers an approach to Messiah that honors the scholarship of the past thirty years without carving away all the fat and forcing down the throats of his listeners a parched, dustily academic Messiah. Even with relatively small ensembles of players and singers at his disposal, Maestro Layton summons suitable swells of sound for the grand choruses; not the stirring cacophonies familiar from the legendary performances conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent, of course, but grandeur on a scale appropriate to the music in what might be taken for more or less its original form. Where Maestro Layton nods most perceptibly to the Grand Tradition of Beecham and Sargent is in choices of tempo. Rather than setting everything at a rapid pace after the manner of many period-practice specialists, Maestro Layton is unafraid of giving his singers – solo and choral – time in which to execute their divisions cleanly and crisply. Likewise, there is attention in Maestro Layton’s work to preserving momentum in numbers with slower tempi: ‘He was despised,’ for instance, is given a devoutly expansive performance that never threatens to lag. Maestro Layton perhaps proves most successful because he contributes to Messiah’s extensive discography a shapely, compelling performance that is not encumbered by any efforts at making an ostentatious ‘personal stamp’ on the score.

In the context of this recording, Polyphony seem to be an ideal ensemble for Messiah. Using both female and male altos and a careful distribution among singers that avoids over-prominence in any of the parts, Polyphony sing with secure, pointed tone and deliver the complex fugal passages with complete mastery. The ensemble’s hushed singing in a number like ‘Since by man came death’ is raptly beautiful, but they are also successful in summoning the tonal resources required to bring thrilling vigor to the famously extroverted choruses. Polyphony’s training and commitment are evident in the fact that no weak links emerge among any of the voices as the performance progresses. In this, they are superbly supported by the Britten Sinfonia, one of Britain’s busiest and most acclaimed chamber orchestras. The Sinfonia complement Polyphony with equal virtuosity and rhythmic accuracy, doubling the voices in fugues with perfect precision. Solo passages among the instruments are elegantly handled without compromising the integrity of the ensemble playing. The Sinfonia adapt their playing to the style of each number, bringing a particularly pleasing lightness to the Arcadian Pifa. Guided by Maestro Layton, both Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia contribute music-making that honors both tradition and scholarship without making of Messiah a museum piece.

Encountered first among the quartet of British soloists, tenor Allan Clayton sings his opening recitative and aria with technical aplomb, the divisions sung with apparent ease. In his later, more contemplative arias, Mr. Clayton remains very impressive: the anguished ‘'Behold and see’ draws from him very expressive singing that vividly conveys the meaning of the text without jeopardizing the beauty of the voice. Mr. Clayton’s performance reveals an exciting young voice with first-rate potential.

Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams commands attention and admiration in each of his contributions to the performance. His opening recitative, ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts,’ is delivered with powerful tone and astonishing technique. For a singer who displays such authority in the vocal intricacies of Baroque music, Mr. Foster-Williams possesses a rich and rolling voice, reminiscent (among his countrymen) more of the magnificent Gwynne Howell than any of the thinner-voiced, Baroque-specialist basses. In this recording, Mr. Foster-Williams sings with attention to the text and to the subtle nuances of Händel’s word-painting, coloring his tone to match the inflections of the music. Each of Mr. Foster-Williams’ arias is a feast, but his accounts of ‘Why do the nations’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound’ are of special note. In recent memory, only the young Samuel Ramey rivals Mr. Foster-Williams’ performance of his arias in Messiah for flair and vocal opulence.

Several recorded performances of Messiah have floundered with the use of a countertenor in the alto arias. This recording is fortunate, however, to include the work of young countertenor Iestyn Davies, who also recorded Messiah with Edward Higginbottom for Naxos. [Mr. Clayton, too, has previously recorded Messiah, in EMI’s set drawn from an April 2009 performance broadcast worldwide from King’s College, Cambridge.] In each of his arias, Mr. Davies sings with great assurance and remarkably even, beautiful tone. Many countertenors lack the tonal depth to fully convey the sorrow of ‘He was despised,’ but this aria is perhaps the most touching and purely lovely portion of Mr. Davies’ performance. His ornamentation of his arias is tasteful and stylish, and his alertness to the emotional progression of the music is uninhibited by its difficulty. Mr. Davies has not the slightest hint of the ‘hootiness’ that affects many countertenors, especially those trained in the British tradition, and he gives evidence in this performance not merely of an unusually fine voice but also of first-rank artistry.

Like her colleagues, soprano Julia Doyle sings with crispness and good diction, shaping her reflective arias with poise. Her great coloratura challenge, ‘Rejoice greatly,’ is met delightfully, the divisions tossed off with an apt sense of joy. Ms. Doyle also ornaments gracefully, crowning several of her solos with gleaming, interpolated top notes. Ms. Doyle conquers the soprano’s greatest test in Messiah, the radiant ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ with an approach free from affectation: giving full value to the breadth of the music, Ms. Doyle highlights the quiet exaltation of the text with the purity of her singing. Ms. Doyle’s performance makes a very positive impression and on the whole stands proud among her recorded rivals, whose ranks include many of the finest sopranos of the past century.

The version of Messiah performed for this recording essentially follows the sequence likely devised by Händel for use in London in 1750, when ‘But who may abide’ was substantially recomposed for the famous castrato Guadagni. ‘But who may abide’ and ‘Thou art gone up on high’ are therefore heard in their alto incarnations, while ‘But thou didst not leave’ is assigned to the soprano.

Scholarship is a tool necessary to any quest for understanding of the historical foundations and cultural significance of a particular score. Academics are not at the heart of Messiah, however, and this surely explains why, decades after their musical values have been discredited as antiquated and sometimes embarrassingly wrongheaded, many listeners cling with soulful devotion to their Messiah recordings that present the score on a Wagnerian scale. The stylistic nuts and bolts of an ensemble’s approach to Messiah are not as important as the spirit with which they take up the music. Hyperion’s new recording, offering an ensemble of conductor, soloists, choristers, and orchestra who all perform with unimpeded vitality, restores to Messiah its capacity to inspire without challenging the listener to a period-practice duel. It is the sort of performance about which one remembers the beautiful catharsis of the journey rather than the bumps and twists of every road.

a page from the autograph manuscript of MESSIAH