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George Frideric Handel
Julia Doyle, soprano; Iestyn Davies, countertenor; Allan Clayton, tenor;
Andrew Foster-Williams, bass;
Stephen Layton conducting the Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony [chorus]
Review by Wayne Donnelly

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  I didn't receive this release in time to review it before the Christmas season, but I assure you that it will make for satisfying listening whenever one is in the mood for a brilliant performance of this most famous of all Baroque oratorios.

Performances of Messiah have gone through a considerable metamorphosis since I first started listening to it nearly a half-century ago. The first recording I ever heard was the elephantine Ormandy/Philadelphia with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A bit later I graduated to the much-loved Victorian-style performance led by Sir Thomas Beecham — Interpretively superior to Ormandy, but still, in light of current scholarship and performance practice, stylistically anachronistic. The 1966 Philips recording by Colin Davis (not yet Sir) with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was a landmark in that it attempted to return to the composer's intentions with regard to the size of the performing forces, and to reinstate more authentic 18th-century vocal ornamentation. Davis employed a reduced orchestra and a chorus of 40 voices. This recording, coming shortly before original-instrument performance began to gain acceptance, was certainly a radical departure from the likes of Ormandy and Beecham. More importantly, it was — and remains today — simply a wonderful listening experience. That version is available today on decent-sounding CD at low price, and if one is not enamored of the period-instrument approach I have no hesitation in recommending it. Sir Colin also leads a 2006 performance on the LSO Live label. I have not heard that recording, but apparently the maestro takes a similar approach to his earlier version.

These days there are more period-instrument performances than I can keep up with. That said, it is easy to be enthusiastic about what Stephen Layton has accomplished in this new release. From start to finish the music sparkles with energy, propelled by the hair-trigger precision of the Britten Sinfonia and the agile vocal articulation of Polyphony. The four soloists are marvelous in conveying the emotion of the text, and they are generally in superb voice — one of the more satisfying quartets I have heard in this work.

Not everything is perfect, of course. Soprano Julia Doyle's coloratura is a bit labored at times, and countertenor Iestyn Davies's vocal ornamentations are sometimes slightly awkward. Bass Andrew Foster-Williams really sounds more baritoine than bass, lacking that deep sonorous basso quality. But those are minor quibbles that should not deter anyone from thoroughly enjoying their terrifically engaging contributions.

Good as all the soloists are, I must single out the casting of countertenor Davies, rather than the mezzo-soprano more typically used. In Handel's day this role would have normally been sung by a male castrato — a vocal type that while female-sounding in timbre was much more powerful. To cite just one example, Davies' rendition of "He Was Despised" gave me goosebumps, capturing the sorrow of the text more powerfully than any mezzo I can recall — and his other arias are similarly impressive.

The recorded sound is both good and not so good. The orchestra and chorus are recorded in a slightly distant mid-hall perspective, and the beautifully detailed capturing of their stylish playing and singing is absolutely top notch. The soloists, however, are extremely closely recorded; at times I felt I was almost getting a Baroque lap dance. Frequently the soloist virtually drowns out the accompaniment. The performance as a whole is so good that I still strongly recommend it, but this imbalance between soloist and tutti is a shame. Hyperion usually does better.





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