GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Messiah, HWV 56—Lucy Crowe (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Andrew Staples (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass); Le Concert d’Astrée Chœur et Orchestre; Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor [Recorded at the Opéra de Lille, France, 4 – 7 December 2013; ERATO/Warner Classics 0825646240555; 2 CD, 135:28; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
It is not without reason that Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah has maintained steady footholds in the repertories of Arts institutions and choral societies of every conceivable size, level of achievement, and depth of resources in the two-and-a-half centuries since the oratorio was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742. The pages of Händel’s score certainly are not filled with uncomplicated music ideally suited to amateur performers: the bravura exertions required of the choristers are at least as daunting as those with which the soloists must contend, in fact. From a strictly musicological perspective, Messiah is neither Händel’s most adventurous nor his finest oratorio, but it possesses qualities not present in the composer’s other oratorios. Most notably, the drama in Messiah is spiritual rather than physical. There are no named characters, and the libretto compiled by Charles Jennens presents Scripture without commentary. Successive generations of varying approaches to performing Messiah have confirmed that the work can survive an extraordinary degree of editorializing, ranging from Mozart’s respectful enlargement of the orchestra to Twentieth-Century expansions of all aspects of the musical construction of the score. Defining a completely authoritative, historically-appropriate Messiah is virtually impossible, but this new ERATO recording makes an impressive effort at providing the listen with an experience similar to how a performance might have sounded in Händel’s lifetime. It is also a recording that appeals strongly to Twenty-First-Century sensibilities, however. Sadly, far too many performances convey a sense of Messiah being a work for which apologies should be made, a piece that is performed as a popular commercial exercise rather than an artistic endeavor. Messiah is popular, but people want to hear it because it is great music. The performance on these discs never loses sight of the fact that, considerations of dogma aside, Messiah is a work of accessible grandiloquence that satisfies on whichever level the listener chooses to accept.
Though her mastery of Baroque repertory and the music of Händel is undoubted, Messiah is perhaps not a score for which Emmanuelle Haïm might be thought to have special affinity. In hindsight, it can be argued that, despite the typically Baroque abundance of French dance rhythms in the music, Messiah is one of Händel’s most English works. The influences of German models of Schütz, Pachelbel, and Bach and even the Italian works to which Händel was exposed in his youth are less noticeable in Messiah than those of Blow and Purcell, to whose large-scale choral works Messiah is an obvious successor. Under Haïm’s direction, there is unmistakable emphasis on the French elements of Händel’s musical architecture. Unlike many of her historically-informed colleagues, Haïm seems to have no agenda other than performing the music in a way that would have been familiar to Händel. Articulations of cadences are occasionally rather abrupt, and the final bars of individual numbers are intermittently idiosyncratically handled. On the whole, though, Haïm preserves an unusually consistent progression of tempi that sets an engaging but never breathless dramatic pace. Solely among conductors presiding over period-instrument ensembles, she faces a field of justifiably lauded competitors, but Haïm triumphs over some of the most celebrated of her colleagues by making this Messiah one that, almost without exception, sounds like a genuine performance of Händel’s oratorio rather than a dryly academic treatise on period practice or a misguided attempt at assigning operatic pretensions to the music.
The instrumentalists of Le Concert d’Astrée play Händel’s music with consummate ability. Numbering twenty-five players including the continuo, the ensemble’s dimensions closely adhere to contemporary accounts and scholarly notions of Händel’s orchestras in Dublin and London. From the first bars of the Grave opening of the Sinfony, the sounds produced by the Concert d'Astrée players are perfectly-tuned and produced with warmth rare for period-instrument ensembles. The Sinfony’s fugal Allegro moderato is robustly done without seeming forced or hectic, and in both airs and choruses throughout the performance the musicians follow Haïm’s lead in crafting a performance that is delightfully free of blatant eccentricities. The Pifa, marked Larghetto e mezzo piano, is charmingly played, truly sounding like the plaintive song of shepherds’ pipes. The continuo is creatively but reservedly provided by cellist Felix Knecht, double bassist Nicola Dal Maso, harpsichordist Violaine Cochard, and organist Joseph McHardy, and the playing of violinist David Plantier and trumpeters Guy Ferber and Emmanuel Alemany is especially impressive. Doubling of vocal lines is discreetly managed, and not one of the Concert d'Astrée players proves anything but a reliably stylish Händelian.
Consisting in this performance of six sopranos, five altos, four tenors, and five basses, the personnel of the Chœur du Concert d'Astrée bring appreciable intimacy to the contemplative choruses but also conjure an imposingly weighty sound in the celebratory numbers. In Part One, the choristers’ singing of 'And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,’ 'And he shall purify,’ and 'O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion' is suitably brilliant, and their performance of 'For unto us a child is born' bristles with joyous anticipation. There is little suggestion of the distancing effect that Händel wanted in 'Glory to God in the highest,' but there is no doubt of the sincerity of the angels’ message. The histrionic power of their account of 'His yoke is easy, His burthen is light' is deeply moving. Part Two is launched with a magnificent performance of 'Behold the Lamb of God,' and the choristers sing 'Surely He hath borne our griefs,' 'And with His stripes we are healed,' and 'All we, like sheep, have gone astray' with incredible energy and focus. The sequence of 'He trusted in God,' the exultant 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates,' 'Let all the angels of God worship Him,' 'The Lord gave the word,' 'Their sound is gone out into all lands,' and 'Let us break their bonds asunder’ is shaped with faultless sensitivity to the dramatic progression of the music. The chorus’s voicing of the oft-abused 'Hallelujah!' possesses the sense of wonder that performances frequently lack, the security of the sopranos’ top As evoking reverent ecstasy. The choristers’ handling of the masterful 'Since by man came death' in Part Three is deft, the hushed opening phrases brilliantly juxtaposed with the exclamations of ‘by man came also the resurrection of the dead’ and ‘even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ ‘But thanks be to God’ is affectionately sung, and the concluding ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain’ is begun with grandeur. The choristers are at their best in the Olympian fugue of the final ‘Amen,’ their august singing ending the performance with glorious conviction. Throughout the performance, individual voices intermittently stand out, undermining the homogeneity of ensemble, but the twenty singers are resoundingly successful in executing their parts with exactness in many instances obscured by the singing of larger ensembles.
Tenor Andrew Staples opens Part One with performances of the accompanied recitative 'Comfort ye my people' and air 'Ev'ry valley shall be exalted' that exude confidence in both the difficult coloratura and in the challenging tessitura of the music. As written, the tenor solos do not make extravagant demands upon the singer’s upper register, but the center of vocal gravity is often high. Staples is unbothered by the range of the music, and his lovely, soft timbre is capable of taking on a surprising strength above the staff. In Part Two, his voicing of the string of accompanied recitatives—‘All they that see Him laugh Him to score,' 'Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,' and ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’—evokes the sadness and shame of the texts, and his dolorous singing of the arioso 'Behold, and see, if there be any sorrow' is dramatically and musically apt. He lends both the air 'But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell' and the recitatives 'Unto which of the angels said He at any time' and 'He that dwelleth in heaven' elements of proud satisfaction. The sense of righteous vengeance in the air 'Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron' is muted in Staples’s performance, but he manages the difficult intervals and divisions with élan. He delivers his part in the deceptively simple duet in Part Three, 'O death, where is thy sting,’ with the sound of glee in his voice. Staples’s embellishments, though conservative on the whole, occasionally seem slightly haphazard, but he provides a technically first-rate and very tonally appealing demonstration of the tenor part.
Christopher Purves has to his credit considerable experience in the music of Händel, and his acquaintance with the composer’s operas and oratorios is put to splendid use in this performance of Messiah. He cheats in none of the divisions in the accompanied recitative 'Thus saith the Lord of Hosts,' and though his voice is stronger at the top than at the bottom of his range he infuses 'For behold, darkness shall cover the earth' with a resonant atmosphere of menace that is illuminated by his singing of the light that Christ’s coming will shine upon humanity. In his performance, the air 'The people that walked in darkness' sounds less awkward than it sometimes does, and he descends to the tonal depths without sacrificing vocal smoothness. In Part Two, the magisterial C-major aria 'Why do the nations so furiously rage together' receives from Purves a performance distinguished by the accuracy—in terms of pitch and rhythm—of the singer’s negotiations of the fast triplets. The accompanied recitative 'Behold, I tell you a mystery' and air 'The trumpet shall sound' in Part Three are sung unforgettably by Purves: it is indicative of the impression made by his sonorous vocalism that the superb trumpeting recedes into the background to an unusual degree. Purves is hardly in a crowded field when compared with other singers with similar distinction as a Händel bass, but his singing in this performance confirms that he continues to deserve every accolade he receives.
The alto solos in Messiah present challenges to modern singers of any register. First sung by a contralto but by the time of Händel’s death arranged, transposed, and in some cases reassigned to countertenor, castrato, and other soloists, the alto recitatives and airs in their most familiar forms are uncongenial even for many singers who specialize in Händel repertory. If the music that he sings in this performance is uncomfortable for countertenor Tim Mead, his subtle, quietly poignant singing offers no evidence of struggle. Employing the 1750 D-minor setting sung by Guadagni, Mead rips through the coloratura of the air 'But who may abide the day of His coming?' with complete ease, and he then sings the recitative 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive' with disarming simplicity. The low-lying lines of 'O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion' never upset his finely-wrought tonal production. His voicing of 'Then shall the eyes of the blind be open'd' and his half of the duet 'He shall feed His flock like a shepherd' is touchingly tranquil. In Part Two, Mead gives a solemn and serenely beautiful performance of ‘He was despised,’ one of Händel's finest inspirations. He complements this with a fiery account of the D-minor version of the air 'Thou art gone up on high,’ in which his highest notes glisten. There is a wide-eyed, almost boyish awe in his singing of the recitative 'Then shall be brought to pass the saying' and duet 'O death, where is thy sting?' in Part Three, his blending of his voice with Staples’s in the latter achieved with finesse. Mead sings all of his music without the vaguest hint of artifice, and solely as a stream of steady, alluring vocalism his contributions to this Messiah are invaluable.
Soprano Lucy Crowe makes her entrance in Part One with a radiant traversal of the Nativity narrative, building upon the recitative 'There were shepherds abiding in the field' and accompanied recitative 'And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them' with a raptly concentrated 'And the angel said unto them' and 'And suddenly there was with the angel,’ her voice rising to top A with truly angelic poise. Her bravura singing in the air 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion' is suitably jubilant, and her interpolated top B♭ is a gesture of festive joy rather than a shallow effort at showing off the voice. Crowe’s part in the duet with Mead, ‘Come unto Him all ye that labor,' is splendidly done, the firmness of her voice rendering the modulation from the F major of the alto section to the soprano’s B♭ major a stunning effect, and she crowns the duet with another interpolated top B♭. Her G-minor air in Part Two, 'How beautiful are the feet of them,' is sung with assurance that reflects the meaning of the text. The exquisite E-major air at the start of Part Three, 'I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ can seem an anticlimax after the ringing ‘Hallelujah!’ that closes Part Two, but Crowe restores to the music the extraordinary importance that Händel devoted to it. Her singing here and in the lovingly-crafted G-minor air 'If God be for us, who can be against us?' is studied without being precious, and the coolness of her timbre lends her performance an aura of sanctity. Her vibrato grows more pronounced at the top of her range, but she has both the sense and the technical wherewithal to maintain control of the voice at all tempi and dynamic levels. Like her colleagues in this performance, she is a laudably capable Händelian who sings her music not as a prima donna going through her motions but as an expert musician seeking grace rather than glamor.
There is no shortage of good recordings of Messiah, but as performances have moved closer to replicating the musical circumstances of performances of the oratorio in Händel’s lifetime they have seemed to drift further and further from the spirit of the music. There is no question that Händel was an opportunist, but it is unfortunate that a penchant for commercial success is habitually equated with a paucity of genius. Messiah is a work that has survived the meddling of fools and friends. It receives from Le Concert d'Astrée and Emmanuelle Haïm a performance that imposes nothing and exposes much. It is amazing to observe what excellence is possible when the primary goal of a performance is following the path that the composer prescribed.