Messiah [1751 London Version]

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Messiah [1751 London Version]

Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones & Robert Brooks (trebles)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Eamonn Dougan (bass)

Choir of New College Oxford

Academy of Ancient Music
Edward Higginbottom

Recorded 3-8 january 2006 in St John’s, Smith Square, London

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: December 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8570131-32 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 22 minutes

Conductor Edward Higginbottom here provides a historical re-creation of Handel’s performances of “Messiah” in London in April and May 1751 when Handel used male voices with trebles singing both the top choral line and the soprano recitatives and arias.

Since the version used in this recording is designed to represent particular events, it is not surprising that the solo voices are not always those that the ear of tradition expects. There is no great musicological dispute about these differences but some arias as performed here are, to say the least, unexpected.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies holds a beautifully controlled line and overcomes doubts as to whether this type of voice is best suited to ‘But who my abide…’ but the music then drives forward into the alternative section ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire’ with pace and verve yet here the effect can only be described as “very pretty”. I find it difficult to accept this threatening text being sung in a way that pleases the ear but undermines the text’s implication of awesome wrath. Another big departure from the standard notion of performance emerges in ‘There were shepherds abiding in the field…’ where no less than three treble voices are used within the same aria.

Perhaps comparison of differences in settings of arias in this version, as compared with the familiar conclusions based on performing requirements of other versions, does not really help assessment. It was tempting to compare aria by aria with the rival recorded version of the 1742 Dublin version recorded by Linn, but often the differences were so striking as to be distracting. For example, on Naxos ‘Rejoice greatly…’ is sung by tenor in a smooth performance which seems to be using Handel’s revision where he altered the time signature to 4/4 – a quick check of the rival recording finds the soprano bouncing cheerfully along in 12/8 time at great pace. It hardly seems the same piece of music. At this point I decided that I should ignore detailed comparison and concentrate on the qualities of the Oxford/AAM version.

The treble soloists tend towards admirable accuracy in the recitatives and arias but they lack both fullness and expressiveness. The choral singing is a different matter and in particular there is admirable attack. This choir is not entirely in the ‘English Cathedral’ mould where the top register is often pure but colourless because at New College there is much of the power of the better continental male choirs and there is also confident underpinning by the reliable and firmly balanced lower voices.

The final choruses ‘Worthy is the Lamb…’ and ‘Amen’ certainly bring the work to a triumphant conclusion. ‘Hallelujah’ is also and admirably forceful yet the conductor makes a surprising concession to the memory of the well-beloved, oversized and re-orchestrated performances of the mid-20th century by relaxing the tempo at ‘The Kingdom of this world…’.

The Academy of Ancient Music plays very well. Both harpsichord and organ are listed although the former is rarely audible; the decision to add bassoon to the continuo group makes for a clearly-etched bass line. Hearing what are normally soprano solos sung by one or other of three trebles is a permanent reminder of the special nature of the 1751 edition but expressiveness is not their strong point. On the other hand, Iestyn Davies is rich in quality with no hint of falsetto – a voice that would almost pass for that of a skilled contralto.

This is a very worthy attempt to represent particular historic performances but for all the technical skill of the singers, the use of inexpressive male voices in the higher parts keeps impinging on the ear.

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