16 December 2015

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — MESSIAH (J. Doyle, L. Zazzo, S. Davislim, N. Davies; BR-KLASSIK 900510)

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - MESSIAH (BR-KLASSIK 900510)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Messiah, HWV 56Julia Doyle (soprano), Lawrence Zazzo (countertenor), Steve Davislim (tenor), Neal Davies (bass-baritone); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; B’Rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent; Peter Dijkstra, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany, 21 – 27 November 2014; BR-KLASSIK 900510; 2 CDs, 135:58; Available from BR-KLASSIK, ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It was perhaps with tinges of irony and bitterness that Georg Friedrich Händel famously suggested that the reception for his oratorio Theodora in London, his adopted home since the second decade of the Eighteenth Century, would be tempered by the city’s Jewish population’s objection to the oratorio’s Christian subject and ladies’ rejection of its inherent morality. He might have felt much the same about the work for which he is most known in the Twenty-First Century, Messiah. Composed in 1741 and premièred in Dublin in 1742, Messiah reached London in 1743, when Händel, the predominant composer of Italian opera in the English capital since the première of his Rinaldo in 1711, was disenfranchised not only with the whims of egotistical singers but also with the fickleness of English audiences. Falling victim first to the machinations of a rival opera company supported by the Prince of Wales and later to the popularity of satires of Italian opera in its Händelian guise like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Händel abandoned the composition of opera after completing Deidamia in 1741 and with Messiah struck a decisive blow for the English oratorio genre that he had redefined with his 1732 revision of his earlier masque Esther. Like several of Händel’s operas, Messiah exists in multiple forms, ranging from that in which it was first heard in Dublin in 1742 to the 1754 version prepared for and bequeathed by Händel to London’s Foundling Hospital and an arrangement made by Mozart and eventually published in 1803 with further alterations by Johann Adam Hiller. Until the advent of the historically-informed performance practice movement, allegiances among Twentieth-Century Messiah performers were split between editions by Ebenezer Prout and Watkins Shaw, neither of which answered all of the questions posed by the perennially-popular oratorio. The foremost question that a performance of Messiah, if its aim is to faithfully recreate how voices and instruments are likely to have sounded in the Eighteenth Century or if it adjusts the scale of the music to conform with modern performance standards, must ultimately answer is whether the doggedly temperamental Händel would have granted it his approval. There is no doubt that even the brusque Saxon would have found copious words of praise for BR-KLASSIK’s new Messiah, masterfully culled from recordings of performances given in Munich’s Herkulessaal in November 2014. Uniting the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks with the B’Rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent under the baton of Dutch conductor Peter Dijkstra, this Messiah is unexpectedly one of the most successful recorded performances of this monumental score.

Without in any way denigrating the fine work done by non-native speakers in performances and recordings of the piece, one of this Messiah’s foremost strengths is its quartet of English-speaking soloists, an advantage that is apparent from the first bars of ‘Comfort ye, my people,’ magnificently sung by Malaysian-born, Australian-reared tenor Steve Davislim, the sole soloist here recorded in Messiah for the first time. His firm, focused, consistently appealing tones are deployed with intelligence in Händel’s familiar melodic lines, and his technique is equal to both the bravura and the dramatic demands of the tenor arias. Davislim ornaments ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ tastefully, but the apex of his performance—and, indeed, one of the finest passages in the performance as a whole—is his restrained but expressive account of ‘Behold, and see if there be any sorrow.’ Furthermore, he is the rare tenor who truly conquers rather than merely surviving the daunting ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,’ and his contributions to the still-too-often-omitted ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ intensifies gratitude for its inclusion. Few recorded performances of the tenor arias equal Davislim’s. Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies, ever an involved, accomplished singer, is on splendid form in this performance, singing strongly but thoughtfully. His emphatic style of utterance can sometimes overpower Händel’s music, but, beginning with unsubtle but stylish traversals of ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,’ his forthright singing is here a decided asset. Davies’s anthracite-hued voicing of ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’ conjures a reverent aura of wonder, and he sails through the fiorature of ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound,’ its B section beautifully accompanied only by the organ, with unflinching brilliance. This is among the bass-baritone’s most effective outings on disc. American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo largely avoids the hootiness heard in many of his similarly-voiced colleagues’ performances of the alto solos in Messiah, and his singing is notable for its secure intonation throughout the range. Sustained tones occasionally develop a slight suggestion of unsteadiness, but Zazzo is an imaginative, artful singer who controls his vocal resources with great skill. He sings ‘But who may abide the day of his coming,’ ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,’ and the alto’s portion of ‘He shall feed his flock’ handsomely, his embellishments unfailingly musical. Countertenors’ performances rarely rival female altos’ singing of the poignant ‘He was despised and rejected of men,’ but Zazzo has nothing to fear in comparison with even the greatest interpreters among recorded ladies, Kathleen Ferrier, Helen Watts, and Dame Janet Baker. His voice exudes exaltation in ‘Thou art gone up on high,’ which he dispatches with considerable technical acumen, and he partners Davislim well in ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ Zazzo was in marginally better voice in his earlier Messiah with René Jacobs on harmonia mundi, but this is the more memorable performance. Lancastrian soprano Julia Doyle has also been heard in a previous recording of Messiah, in her case the Polyphony traversal on the Hyperion label. She, too, improves upon her singing on her first recording—no mean feat. In the series of recitatives and accompagnati relaying the narrative of Christ’s birth, beginning with ‘There were shepherds abiding in the fields,’ Doyle’s voice rings out excitingly, and she sings ‘Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion’ beguilingly, using the lilting rhythm to credibly convey the elation of the text. Doyle follows Zazzo’s ‘He shall feed his flock’ with a lovingly-phrased ‘Come unto him all ye that labour’ in which she interpolates a particularly ravishing top B♭. Both ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and ‘If God be for us’ are sung with poise and alluringly even tone, but Doyle’s performance of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is rightly a thing apart: melding excellent diction and an obvious affinity for the music with spot-on commands of pitch and rhythm, the soprano makes the aria the emotional catharsis that Händel surely meant it to be. She and her male colleagues comprise a refreshingly well-matched quartet betrayed by none of its members, one of the finest complements of soloists recorded in Messiah in recent years.

Only thirty-six years old at the time of the performances that produced this recording, Dijkstra has clearly acquired through his leadership of choral ensembles including Nederlands Kamerkoor, Sveriges Radiokören, and Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks talents for developing rapports with choristers and encouraging them to surpass their highest standards of singing that elude many conductors. In this Messiah, both the Bavarian choir and the B'Rock musicians supply performances of superb quality. Few scores are apt to be more familiar to period-instrument ensembles than Messiah, but the B'Rock instrumentalists play Händel’s music with no indications of routine, only complete mastery. Purists whose ideas of historically-informed performance practices prohibit healthy doses of thoughtfully-conceived innovation will undoubtedly object to B'Rock’s use of theorbo in the continuo. That is regrettable, as it is so sublimely done that the notion of Händel himself objecting is unfathomable. The more canonical harpsichord and organ are played with equal accomplishment. Throughout the performance, B'Rock’s musicians find in Händel’s music outlets for both virtuosity and expressivity. Anyone expecting the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks singers to produce elephantine sounds with accents more appropriate to the Händel of Halle than of Dublin or London will be very surprised by this recording. Responding to Dijkstra’s guidance and singing in clear, cleanly-articulated English, the choristers achieve balances that are ideal for each chorus in succession, ranging from the hushed awe of ‘Since by man came death’ to the colossal ‘Amen’ that ends the work. ‘And the glory of the Lord,’ ‘And he shall purify the sons of Levi,’ and ‘For unto us a child is born’ are joyously declaimed, and the choristers take over ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’ from Zazzo with the irrepressible glee of people with news too thrilling to be withheld. The distance effect sought by Händel in ‘Glory to God in the highest’ is only approximated with contrasts in dynamics, but the choir’s singing is appropriately exultant. As sung in this performance, a more compelling close to Part One and opening for Part Two than ‘His yoke is easy’ and ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ are unimaginable, and the sequence of choruses beginning with ‘Surely, he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ and extending to ‘All we like sheep’ is shaped with enthralling dramatic thrust. The choir's delivery of ‘He trusted in God’ veritably explodes with irony, diverging markedly from the rousing statement of faith in ‘Lift up your heads.’ Messiah's ‘Hallelujah!’ may not be the best of Händel’s choruses or even of his ‘Hallelujah’ choruses, but there is no question that it is his most famous; not undeservedly so. The performance that ‘Hallelujah!’ receives from Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks on this recording justifies the number’s fame, the handling of contrapuntal passages assured and the sopranos’ ascents to top A unperturbed. The final chorus, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,’ is sung with unstinting power, providing an inspiring coda to an uncommonly cohesive, inspiriting performance.

Even in today’s problematic Classical recording industry, new recordings of Händel’s Messiah are anything but scarce. Perhaps Messiah is regarded by some artists and labels as a ‘safe,’ marketable work, and there is a measure of legitimacy in that logic. With many wonderful performances in the Messiah discography, however, new recordings face fierce competition, competition that threatens to marginalize them. With performances of the distinction offered on this recording by soloists, choir, orchestra, and conductor alike, BR-KLASSIK’s Messiah cannot be marginalized: it is a Messiah that earns a place among the most enjoyable, most moving Messiahs on disc.