14 March 2016

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — MESSIAH (S. Yoncheva, T. Mumford, R. Villazón, B. Terfel; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; CFN 1631-2)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - MESSIAH (Mormon Tabernacle Choir CFN 1631-2)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Messiah, HWV 56 [Edition by Mack Wilberg]—Sonya Yoncheva (soprano), Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazón (tenor), Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone); Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Orchestra at Temple Square; Mack Wilberg, conductor [Recorded in the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, during sessions in February, May, July, September, and December 2014, and August, September, October, and November 2015; Mormon Tabernacle Choir CFN 1631-2; 2 CDs + DVD, 143:26 (Highlights disc also available); Available from Mormon Tabernacle Choir and major music retailers]

Few are the courageous souls who would dare to contradict the notion that Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah is one of the most beloved creations in the history of Western Art. Composed in a three-week period in 1741 at a pace that astounds modern observers but was unremarkable for the famously industrious Händel, the score of Messiah is noteworthy for its relative originality: per capita, more of its numbers are unique to the score than their brethren in many of the composer’s operas and oratorios. What is unjustly less frequently the subject of laypersons’ praise are the extraordinary histrionic quality and emotional impact of Charles Jennens’s (1700 – 1773) libretto for Messiah. His work was merely arranging Biblical passages, it might be argued, but he did so with the theatrical acuity of Metastasio, da Ponte, and Boito. Jennens’s was a life of comfort that enabled him to dabble in the Arts, and his appreciation of Händel’s music yielded libretti for several of the Saxon’s oratorios, not least among which is his persuasive text for the masterful Saul. Jennens’s advantageous situation afforded him considerably greater access to the Arts community in Eighteenth-Century Britain than his talent and education likely merited, but his libretto for Messiah confirms that he was not merely a dilettante with a measure of piety. Relying slightly more upon the poetic prophesying of the Old Testament than on the New Testament’s fulfillment narrative, Jennens created with a commendable economy of words as complete a portrait of the life of Christ as has grace any book, canvas, or score in the two millennia of Christian ideology. His oft-quoted low opinion of Händel’s treatment of his libretto notwithstanding, Messiah was from the time of its 1742 première in Dublin acknowledged as a pinnacle of its composer’s art. In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, Messiah remains one of the most frequently-performed works in the standard repertory, its popularity having endured a fascinating cycle of performance trends. Like the King James Version of the Bible, Messiah is a compelling work of art whether the individual listener accepts its subject matter as fact, fable, or a synthesis of the two. Regardless of its provenance, this new recording of Messiah by the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir is most valuable because it approaches the score not as a dogmatic sermon in three parts but as an artistic entity of extraordinary global significance. Recorded with meticulous attention to recreating within the confines of the listener’s space the legendary acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle, this Messiah distills nearly three centuries of traditions into a performance shaped not by fads and theories but by undeviating trust in the unimpeachable quality of Jennens’s wordsmithing and, above all, Händel’s music.

Owing in large part to the commendable emphases placed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on respecting and maintaining both body and soul, Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of America’s fittest, most vibrantly youthful metropolitan areas, its stunningly beautiful setting at the foot of the Wasatch Range reflected in the exuberantly reverent architecture of Temple Square, the Mormon Church’s Vatican City. When walking the streets of Salzburg, seeing the twin spires of Salzburger Dom and the majestic Festung Hohensalzburg towering over the city, it is impossible to ignore the ethos of the place that must have stoked the young Mozart’s imagination, and a similar energy, the spirit that has inspired generations of Utahans since Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, permeates modern Salt Lake City. It was on 22 August 1847, less than a month after ending his cross-continental trek to Utah, that Young organized the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, thus establishing a musical institution that now has nearly as extensive a history with Messiah as the British choral societies by which the score was stewarded throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In the performance on these discs, Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Music Director Mack Wilberg offers his own edition of Messiah, combining elements of historically-informed performance practices with vestiges of the Viennese tradition enshrined in the version of the score prepared by Mozart at Baron van Swieten’s request and the monumentally-scaled Victorian approach to the score. With its ensemble of nearly 450 singers and instrumentalists, this is a Messiah that will not find favor with many period practice purists, but not one bar of Händel’s music is expanded to proportions greater than it can support. Under Wilberg’s direction, the Orchestra at Temple Square musicians play virtuosically, the winds making their lines retained from Mozart’s edition of Messiah sound indispensable alongside Händel’s authentic scoring. Propelled by the creative but unobtrusive organ and harpsichord playing of Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen, and Andrew Unsworth and the cello continuo of Elizabeth Marsh, the orchestra’s performance is robust yet refined. Aided by the expert engineering team, Wilberg molds a traversal of Messiah that is enjoyably grandiose without being detrimentally elephantine.

The familiar names among the quartet of soloists might at first be interpreted as a conscious endeavor to spur sales of this recording. Be that as it may, each of the soloists contributes distinctive qualities that heighten the artistic standard of the performance. The opening bars of the recitative ‘Comfort Ye My People’ reveal Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón to be in fine voice. The surprising fluency in florid writing evident in his previous recordings of Monteverdi, Händel, and Mozart works is even more prominent in his singing here. Villazón’s stylish ornamentation encompasses a genuine trill, and he mostly eschews operatic posturing, instead phrasing with intelligence and straightforward eloquence. His English is accented but clear; far more intelligible, in fact, than the diction of a number of native English speakers who have recorded Messiah. Villazón dispatches the divisions in ‘Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted’ with aptly exultant ease. The sequence of anguished utterances for the tenor in Part Two receives from this tenor a performance of touching simplicity, the drama extracted from rather than imposed upon the music. The stinging bitterness of ‘All They That See Him, Laugh Him to Scorn’ and ‘Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart’ is all the more visceral for the music being sung with such beauty, and Villazón voices the deceptively lilting ‘Behold, and See If There Be Any Sorrow’ as enthrallingly as any tenor who has recorded it, recalling both Jon Vickers’s power and the reedy brilliance of Philip Langridge. The halting uncertainty of his singing of ‘He Was Cut Off out of the Land of the Living’ suggests an inner struggle to express sentiments too appalling to be given voice, but the contrast with the brighter, almost cathartic ’But Thou Didst Not Leave His Soul in Hell’ is stirring, Villazón’s bronzed timbre glowing in the major-key sunlight. An atmosphere of anxiety permeates his readings of ‘Unto Which of the Angels Said He at Any Time’ and ‘He that Dwelleth in Heaven.’ Particularly impressive musically and dramatically is Villazón’s singing of the demanding ‘Thou Shalt Break Them,’ his voice darting through the runs and attacking the tricky intervals with the resonant strike of the rod of iron of which he sings. There is a sense of absolving vindication in his articulation of his lines in the brief duet ‘O Death, Where Is Thy Sting.’ Villazón is a gifted, unfailingly interesting singer whose work is not always conventionally appealing. There is nothing unappealing in his singing in this Messiah, and the healthy dose of Latin fervor that he injects into the performance is welcome when the instrument of its injection is such solid, satisfying singing.

Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is no stranger to recording Messiah, and it is encouraging to hear his voice on splendid form in this traversal of the bass solos. The passagework in ‘Thus Saith the Lord’ is no longer negotiated as suavely as it was when Terfel first recorded Messiah, but the sheer brawn with which he navigates his way through the music remains impressive. His polished-teak timbre conveys the gravity of ‘For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth’ and ‘The People That Walked in Darkness’ without artificial heaviness, and he still ascends to E above the stave without strain. The attacks on the fearsome fiorature in ’Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together’ are not completely clean but lack nothing in terms of raw energy, the text coursing through the music like venom. Terfel is at his best in Part Three, in which his voicing of ‘Behold, I Tell You a Mystery’ is characterized by subtlety and enigmatic serenity. Dueling with trumpeter Alan Sedgley in ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,’ Terfel’s sonorous voice booms authoritatively. Terfel now brings to Messiah the voice of Wotan or Hans Sachs and the slightly reduced flexibility that this implies, but his singing in this performance is by no means undistinguished. He remains a confident, captivating Händelian.

It is unusual for the contralto soloist to be the foremost attraction of a performance or recording of Messiah, but Utah-born mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is here a pillar of flair and finesse, traits which also defined her portrayal of Smeaton in the recent Metropolitan Opera revival of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Introduced in the fiery ‘But Who May Abide The Day of His Coming,’ Mumford employs her well-honed bravura technique and flickering vibrato to dig into the text, mastering words and notes with equal sagacity. The tranquility that emanates from her phrasing of ‘Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive’ is quietly moving, and she beautifully evinces the simple joy in ‘O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion.’ Simplicity is also the hallmark of Mumford’s unaffected singing of ‘Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened.’ Her performance of the first part of ‘He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd’ is one of the finest stretches of singing in this Messiah, followed in the opening minutes of Part Two by her exquisitely-wrought ‘He Was Despised.’ The equal of the sublime ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, ‘He Was Despised’ is essential listening for anyone who questions the extent of Händel’s genius, and Mumford’s singing of it on this recording rivals unforgettable performances by Helen Watts and Dame Janet Baker. The evenness and integration of Mumford’s voice enable her to cover the full range of the music without disruptive register shifts, and she tastefully decorates the aria’s da capo with gorgeous floated notes in the upper octave. The tongue-twisting text in ‘Thou Art Gone Up on High’—try repeating ‘Thou hast led captivity captive’ in quavers and semiquavers!—is nearly as daunting as the music, but Mumford conquers every difficulty. The recitative ‘Then Shall Be Brought to Pass’ and duet ‘O Death, Where Is Thy Sting’ in Part Three draw from the mezzo-soprano radiant, resolute singing. Mumford’s may be the least-familiar of the soloists’ names to many potential purchasers of this Messiah, but her singing is one of the foremost reasons why this recording should be heard.

Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has in the months since her 2013 Metropolitan Opera début as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto become a much-lauded member of that company’s roster, opening the 2015 – 2016 MET season as Desdemona in a new prodiction of Verdi’s Otello. Though her repertoire includes ‘early’ parts like the title rôle in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, mesmerizingly performed opposite the Nerone of Max Emanuel Cenčić at Opéra de Lille and preserved on DVD by Virgin Classics [reviewed here], Baroque music is hardly a cornerstone of Yoncheva’s renown. Like Villazón, she sings English with an accent that rarely compromises her elucidation of text, but English phrasing and vowel placement are audibly new territory for her. Still, from her entrance in ‘There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field’ and through the nativity narrative of ‘And Lo! The Angel of the Lord Came Upon Them,’ ‘And the Angel Said unto Them,’ and ‘And Suddenly There Was with the Angel,’ she emits sounds of considerable allure, the focus of the tone only intermittently undermined by difficulties with English phonetics. Her top A is fantastic, however, and she sings ‘Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion’ rousingly, tossing off the roulades with appropriate zeal. Following Mumford in ‘He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,’ Yoncheva at first seems slightly prosaic, but her experience with bel canto quickly uplifts her extension of lines, her F and G at the top of the stave rounded and full-bodied even when sung softly. In Part Two, the soprano nearly rivals Mumford’s ‘He Was Despised’ with her shimmering singing of ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet.’ After this, her lovely but earthbound traversal of the poignant ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ at the beginning of Part Three is somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, her assured voicing of ‘If God Be for Us, Who Can Be Against Us’ just before the final chorus leaves a decidedly favorable impression. In the long history of Messiah on records, prime donne of the operatic stage have rarely been the most accomplished soprano soloists in Händel’s most popular oratorio. Though not yet fully comfortable with words or music in the performance on these discs, further experience with the score—unlikely considering the demands of her international career, alas—might well usher Yoncheva into the company of those few sopranos who sing Messiah and their preeminent operatic rôles with equal excellence.

Not surprisingly, it is the singing of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that is the core of this Messiah even amidst an ensemble of high-calibre soloists—if not its sole raison d’être, surely its principal raison d’écouter. The precision with which a choir of such prodigious numbers executes Händel’s contrapuntal writing is staggering, but the recording fails the choristers to a small degree in this regard. Though balances are for the most part thoughtfully rendered, aside from what sounds like very close recording of the soloists, possibly in an effort to minimize the inevitable acoustical variations among even meticulously-controlled sessions, there are passages in which clarity is lost, especially at top volume. In Part One, the divergent emotions of ‘And the Glory of the Lord,’ ‘And He Shall Purify,’ and ‘O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion’ are contrasted via management of dynamics. The complementary relationship between ‘For unto Us a Child Is Born’ and ‘Glory to God’ has rarely been more apparent in a recorded performance. The wall of sound built by the choristers in ‘His Yoke Is Easy, and His Burthen is Light’ ends Part One with a deluge of unexaggerated devotion. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ at the start of Part Two could hardly be more different, the singers’ hushed awe surging on a tide of undiluted musicality. The electrifying progression of ‘Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs,’ ‘And with His Stripes We Are Healed,’ and the figuratively and literally breathtaking ‘All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray’ is guided with a sure hand by Wilberg and sung with impeccable poise and formidably reliable tone by the choir. No less gripping are the articulations of ‘He Trusted in God That He Would Deliver Him,’ the exhilarating ‘Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates,’ ‘Let All the Angels of God Worship Him,’ ‘The Lord Gave the Word,’ and ‘Their Sound is Gone Out into All the Lands’ that shape the central arc of the Passion chronicle. The choristers enunciate the ingenious figurations of ‘Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder’ with gleeful accuracy of intonation and rhythm. Triumphant as the choir’s performance of ‘Hallelujah’ is here, it does not assume greater prominence in the oratorio’s musical and dramatic structures than Händel intended. It is a profound summation of faith and prophecies come to fruition, but it is not bloated as in many performances so that the music that follows seems anticlimactic. Part Three here begins with as galvanizing a performance of ‘Since By Man Came Death’ as has ever been presented in a complete recording of Messiah, and the choir’s soaring tones make ‘But Thanks Be to God’ a number similar in significance to its better-known companions in Messiah. The magnificent fugues of ‘Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain’ and the concluding ‘Amen’ are not so much sung as felt: the conviction with which the voices ring out is palpable, igniting sparks that illuminate the skill with which Händel ended this world-altering score.

Amidst the plethoras of challenges facing Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century, efforts to record Messiah are no longer as regular as death and taxes. This makes the appearance of a recording like this new one by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir all the more valuable. Händel’s Messiah is a perpetual feast, and this recording offers a delectable new course. Were he to hear the music performed with the sincerity and grandeur achieved on this recording, might Jennens revise his opinion of Händel’s setting of his carefully-tailored text?