December 2006

Handel - Messiah
Kerstin Aveno, soprano; Patricia Baron, contralto; Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor; Kobie van Rensburg, tenor; Neal Davies, baritone; Choir of Clare College; Freiburger Barockorchester; René Jacobs, conductor
Harmonia Mundi MH 901928, SACD 801928
Format: CD, Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2006

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Messiah is Handel’s masterpiece, the best-known oratorio ever written. There is no one "correct" version. Handel kept rewriting for years after its premiere, shaping certain arias to fit particular voices and altering instrumentation to suit performing forces. After his death, others arranged it, and we cannot discount at least one of those "modernizations," for it was by Mozart.

There has been a new recording just about every year. For 2006, it’s led by René Jacobs and it presents a rating dilemma, because it has great strengths countered by noticeable weaknesses. It is a period performance on Baroque instruments with a small chorus and orchestra. In its favor is the best group of soloists ever recorded in this work, all note perfect, sonorous, and dramatic. Arias like "Why Do the Nations" and "Thou Art Gone Up on High" seem vital and fresh. The chorus and orchestra are accomplished and give the conductor exactly what he wants. On the minus side, Jacobs fiddles around excessively with dynamics. Terraced loud and soft sounds with sfroszando-piano attacks reach a bizarre height in the famous "Hallelujah" chorus, and the swooning and sweeping phrasing of the final "Amen" is equally weird. These effects are beyond eccentric; they simply make no sense at all.

The recorded sound is rich and detailed; the multichannel tracks on the SACD release have wonderful presence. I’d certainly recommend hearing this reading for the soloists, but in the long run I prefer Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort for a period Baroque performance (Archiv), Charles McKerras for a Baroque interpretation on modern instruments (EMI), and Mackerras again for a definitive performance of the lovely Mozart Edition (ASV or RCA). If you want your Handel big, there’s a very musical performance led by Sir Thomas Beecham on RCA, which uses the elephantine yet elegant arrangement by Sir Eugene Goosens, complete with cymbals and harp.