Handel: Messiah / Higginbottom, AAM, Oxford New College Choir

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If Handel were alive today, he'd still be revising Messiah--it's the nature of this remarkable work, and it was the nature of its very practical, theatre-savvy composer. The various "official" performing versions and hybrids, along with alternate arias and added choruses, have given modern choirs a wealth of choices for their own performances, including license to just cobble together a version to suit the needs of the available forces--just as Handel would have done. This recording claims to offer "the only modern account of Handel's unique London performances in April and May 1751, when he used [boy] treble voices for choruses and arias." Conductor Edward Higginbottom can't find an explanation for that decision, but just the same he selected three boys from his excellent choir to help replicate the event. Indeed, of all the British chapel, cathedral, and university-based choirs, Higginbottom's Choir of New College Oxford always has cultivated the most ingratiatingly warm, clear, full-bodied, centered treble tone, complemented by robust basses and rich-colored middle voices--which is why his is the ideal group to bring this particular Messiah setting to disc.

Of course, for the most part, the arias, recits, and choruses are the same here as for any other complete Messiah performance; variations occur in the use of countertenor rather than female alto, and in the several numbers where a treble sings instead of the usual female soprano. And the three trebles who share the work here are fabulous; nothing is lost in expression or technique, and there's something to be said for their pure, completely unmannered style in such hugely familiar music, so often overwrought and excessively ornamented. And speaking of ornaments, Higginbottom doesn't allow the "all-about-me" kind of decoration from his soloists that renders many performances different but ultimately irritating; instead the ornamenting is tasteful and artful.

Higginbottom's command of the orchestra also is impressive; he has a firm grasp of the larger picture of the oratorio, and consequently makes decisions regarding pacing that just "feel" right. It's interesting that among the vast volumes of writing about Messiah, almost no one ever discusses tempo--and yet it's tempo more than anything that determines a successful performance. The current "speed for speed's sake" obsession of some conductors simply ruins choruses such as "And He shall purify", "His yoke is easy", and "All we like sheep", and arias like "Rejoice greatly"--but here we are treated to mostly sensible (but certainly not slow!) tempos that properly capture the essential rhythmic and melodic--and textual--aspects of a given movement (except for Higginbottom's insanely fast "All we like sheep", which the choir almost pulls off!). The lively movements dance; the more reflective and solemn ones are appropriately weighty or delicate as required. In other words, this is a very intelligent, articulate, and consummately musical--as well as entertaining--Messiah.

The choir is as good as any you'll hear in this music, and the soloists--none of them big names, but all experts in this repertoire--couldn't be more ideally chosen. There are many scintillating moments--including the chorus "For unto us a Child is born", which has never been more excitingly rendered on a recording (at least among the two-dozen-plus sets in my collection)--and there are some occasions, the "Hallelujah" chorus for one, where the choir is covered just a little more than we'd like by the exuberant orchestra.

Being a very critical Messiah observer, I was pleasantly surprised by this "treble"-voice version. In fact, along with the reference recordings above, it's becoming one of my favorites, simply because it renders this beloved and time-worn work with respect for its innate structural and expositional integrity--no fancy, quirky self-indulgences, no artificial additives, just pure, unprocessed, organic Handel. A pleasure!
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570131-32

  • UPC: 747313013173

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: George Frideric Handel

  • Conductor: Edward Higginbottom

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Academy of Ancient Music, Oxford New College Choir

  • Performer: David Blackadder, Eamonn Dougan, Henry Jenkinson, Iestyn Davies, Otta Jones, Robert Brooks, Toby Spence