Feature LP Review – Linn’s Handel Messiah on 180-gram Vinyl

Written by: Antony Hodgson


Messiah [1742 Dublin Version]

Susan Hamilton (soprano)

Annie Gill & Claire Wilkinson (contraltos)

Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)

Matthew Brook (bass)

Dunedin Consort & Players

John Butt (harpsichord)

Recorded 1-4 May 2006 in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

LINN CKH 312 – 3 180g LPs

2 hours 20 minutes

Handel: Messiah on Amazon.co.uk

I was very impressed by the compact disc version of this representation of the first performances of “Messiah” in Dublin in April and June 1742 involving relatively small forces (a mere dozen singers for example). It seems however that only rarely were Handel’s revisions more successful although one particular exception was the two-minute aria ‘Thou shalt break them…’ – in 1742 Handel let this short recitative suffice but his later expansion was more dramatic.

The merits of the performance are described more fully in my previous review, as is my appreciation of John Butt’s clear-cut overall interpretation. He directs the work from the harpsichord with great skill, the whole performance is very strong rhythmically and the ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen’ choruses are is as exciting as in any rival ‘authentic’ version. The singers all avoid anachronistic vibrato and I have no hesitation in taking this opportunity to stress again my delight in hearing Susan Hamilton’s youthful and very beautiful soprano voice in ‘Rejoice greatly’: this is a superb realisation of true joy.

Accepting that this is a most recommendable and insightful performance, it is now essential to consider the challenging technical aspect that Linn has addressed by making the daring decision to issue the recording in LP format using “luxury” 180-gram vinyl.

I recall the relatively swift death of the commercial LP in the 1980s. As I reviewed fewer and fewer of them I became aware that cutting and pressing was becoming far more efficient – sadly it was just too late for enthusiasts of the long-playing record to benefit from the development in technology. Prior to that, one of the common faults of the LP was deterioration at inner grooves – not surprising since composers inconsiderately tend to write the loudest music at the close of their compositions! Careless disc-cutting could often lead engineers to take the grooves unnecessarily close to the label. The linear speed of the disc is obviously far slower on the inside of an LP – in fact it is a mere 40 per cent of the speed on the outer edge – so I was delighted to note that Linn has kept the grooves well away from the label. The sound retains its purity throughout all six sides.

I felt that the most informative way of comparing the quality of LP against CD was to run both modes in parallel, switching at random back and forth from one medium to the other. Linn’s impressive LP presentation of “Messiah” can truly be described as “state of the art” – even though this particular art is almost obsolete. The difference between digital and analogue reproduction was easy enough to recognise when switching back and forth but it was not a matter of great contrast, more a matter of subtle difference of coloration. The basic recording was made in a venue that has an ideal amount of resonance. The ear was just a little more aware of the surrounding ambience of Greyfriars Kirk when playing back via LP. The voices seemed very slightly more ‘rounded’ on LP but I made a special point of comparing the hard consonants and the sibilants and I found that these features were projected identically both on LP and CD.

I cannot say that other listeners will hear these tiny differences in the same way that I have done because the equipment that I used could be a factor. I am describing the same recording reproduced through the Technics amplification units and KEF speakers (sometimes also checking on Sennheiser headphones). I believe that my Technics parallel-tracking tone-arm and Quartz turntable was good enough to do the long-playing discs justice but I cannot guarantee that other sets of equipment will give impressions identical to those that I have described.

The final question must be – which of the two methods of sound reproduction do I prefer when listening to this very fine recording? I can confidently say that the sound of the surface-free, rumble-free, skilfully transferred LPs has just a slight advantage over the excellent reproduction of the CDs. I strongly recommend both. Annotation and packaging is also exceptionally good in both formats. The choice between the two must now depend on the audiophile customer.

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