Messiah – Sir Colin Davis

0 of 5 stars

Messiah [1741-2 Version, edited Colin Davis]

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

Tenebrae Choir

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded on 10 & 12 December 2006 in the Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: December 2007
LSO0607 (2 SACDs)
Duration: 2 hours 26 minutes

There are various editions of Handel’s “Messiah”; the differences are influenced by the circumstances of performances that took place during the composer’s lifetime. I discussed some of these differences when reviewing the Linn and Naxos versions about a year ago. Linn used the 1742 edition and Naxos the 1751 version. The 1741-2 date given on the front cover of this new recording is confusing, what we have here is an edition by Sir Colin Davis, which respects the use of arias as presented in 1741. The conductor tends to ignore the special alterations made for 1751. He also incorporates details evident in later 18th-century presentations. A good example is to be found in ‘But who may abide’ where the contralto (mercifully not a countertenor) is used rather than the later alternative of bass, but the succeeding ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire’ is given as a furious ‘Allegro’ rather than the calm unaltered tempo of the earlier conception. In general Davis uses the tried and trusted editions and these are not too far removed from those versions of the arias used in many of today’s performances. Despite Davis’s basic respect for the first version this is not a musicologically ultra-purist performance and Handel’s later ideas are not ignored. In fact I think that the composer would have been pleased with this edition. I suggest that this is a highly intelligent attempt to represent how Handel might have wished his great oratorio to be performed.

Davis is not a musician to imitate ‘early’ performances with their paucity of numbers regarding orchestra and chorus. The LSO strength is reduced only as far as a medium-sized chamber orchestra – keyboard continuo is provided by both harpsichord and organ. Davis explains his philosophy on a supplementary track included in the bonus DVD. I see no sign of audiences tiring of older music being played using the modern instruments of the symphony orchestra – it is still possible to show proper respect for ‘period’ style without using ancient instruments. In his interview, Davis makes two admissions: one of which is to having notated some decorations into his edition of “Messiah”. True, soloists would decorate in an improvisatory way in Handel’s time and purists may raise eyebrows at Davis’s ‘advisory’ method of writing them down but I recall a similar discussion many years ago when his earlier LSO version of “Messiah” was recorded. (There is a second Davis recording, from Munich, of “Messiah”.)

Critics then compared it with Mackerras. Davis was thought to be of the more conventional school because Mackerras daringly wrote ornaments into the score, even going so far as to have full strings ‘improvising’ ornaments. By comparison, the few flourishes that Davis gives his soloists are very minor. The conductor also felt that he might be criticised for beginning the great ‘Amen’ chorus unaccompanied. I don’t think he should worry, this is a most musical notion and I find it very convincing – this is a personal idea certainly but it does not impose upon the music, indeed it leaves space for the final climax to have greater impact.

This DVD is much more than a promotional bonus. It is confusingly indexed however and my player says it is 67 or 74 or 78 minutes long according to where I position the cursor. It is possible to find a continuous group of excerpts of 40 minutes or more, but the remainder is difficult to locate but eventually I found the very interesting interview with Davis (insert DVD and do nothing). From time to time on the DVD an audio recording of the Chorus ‘Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion…’ is played unannounced (it is not indexed anywhere). If the film is allowed to run on, many of the concert excerpts seem to be repeated – I found no logic in the method of access.

Despite all this, the filming is excellent and the definition and realism of the colours is startling. I suppose it was not particularly necessary occasionally to pan around the dark auditorium but at least this showed that most (though surprisingly not all) of the audience stood for the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. I do have reservations about the positioning of the soloists however because they are not always standing in the same place. In the early arias Mark Padmore is seen singing to the conductor’s right but in the latter part of the performance, although not vocally involved at the time, he is shown on the far left.

I often have reservations about recordings at public performances and because of this I have mixed feelings about this presentation. Certainly the balancing is immaculate between soloists, chorus and orchestra. The chorus has wide-ranging dynamics, the orchestra is clear and warm – the harpsichord is occasionally overwhelmed in forte passages, but this is par for the course when modern instruments are being used. I do find the additional use of organ for continuo purposes an advantage and the double bass line is ideally strong.

All four soloists are powerful and commanding. The opening tenor item – ‘Comfort ye…’ – provides a most striking start to vocal events. Mark Padmore sings this superbly – I genuinely feel that this is perhaps the finest performance of this aria that I have ever heard. The vocal line is sustained magnificently – the soloist seems not to need to take a breath – so often I have heard singers gasp their way through the long phrases. Sara Mingardo sings with feminine sympathy especially in ‘He was despisèd…’ (yes I realise that this comment is a personal reaction – how would I have responded had the part been sung by a countertenor?).

But later I am troubled by the production – or perhaps post-production techniques. Tenor Mark Padmore sings his first solos (Nos.27, 29, 30, 31 & 32) from what sounds like half-right, which is the position shown at the start of the DVD. In his remaining arias (42, 43 and his duet with the contralto in No.50) he is on the left of the audio spectrum. Similarly, Susan Gritton is placed to the left until her solos in Parts 2 and 3 of the oratorio (Nos.38, 45 & 52) where she is on the right. Another production anomaly is to be found on the second disc of the set. The booklet says that it begins with item No.27: the recitative ‘All they that see Him…’ (the sixth number of the oratorio’s Part 2) yet we hear the chorus ‘All we like sheep…’ although this was, it seems from the booklet, meant to be heard as the final track of disc 1 (which is actually ‘And with His stripes…’. This means that the track numberings in the booklet for disc 2 are incorrect throughout, always listing a track one digit prior to the actual numbering on the CD. The overall timing for this second CD is therefore not as detailed.

Three CDs, one for each ‘Part’, would have been far preferable. But what can be done about the repositioning of the soloists? Nothing, for it seems the change of positioning occurred at the performance of the 12th, following the single interval, and must have happened at the other concert, too. Before knowing this I was prompted to suspect that the later parts of the recording came from a different day. I realise there might be items where the producer thought the other performance preferable but this would be of trifling concern compared with the disturbing stereo shifts that now exist.

To conclude, this is a magnificent performance, superbly sung and played. I would tend to return to this version in preference to admirable ‘period’ versions. The liveliness of Davis’s tempos is a delightful feature. This is above all an optimistic interpretation – even the ‘serious’ bass arias, with their demanding fast runs, dispel much of the normal atmosphere of gloom because Alastair Miles has such a light touch.

Interpretation, overall musicality and recording quality are outstanding. Presentation – oh dear!

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