HANDEL: Messiah

Some will find the first notes of
the “Sinfony” to be the welcome knock at the door of a friend
whose absence has been too long and whose seasonal visit, charged with
associations of bygone days, will feel all too short. Others will find the
sounds like the houseguest for whom hospitality has become a routine
obligation—not unwelcome, but uneventful and unbidden. And one suspects
that this range itself is a relatively long-standing one. The 1980s stirred
things up, however, with the introduction of period-performance Messiahs. Now
the “knock at the door” seemed to bring the old, bewhiskered
uncle who, after decades of a beard, suddenly arrived clean shaven. The new
visage admittedly played on our notions of familiarity, but also sparked a
new engagement.

The new visage—Messiah shorn of symphonic notions—brought
tempos that danced with buoyance, verbal inflection of musical lines, new
degrees of timbral clarity, ornamental grace, fluency of embellishment, and
new approaches to articulation, at once more subtle and yet more clear. And
now, twenty years down the road, the new visage has become not only familiar,
but expected.

Andrew Parrott’s period Messiah from the late 1980s was re-released
a few years ago by EMI Virgin Classics, and the re-release amply documents
the richness and staying power of this generation of Messiah
performances—a richness now removed from the aura of novelty—the
“uncle” has been clean shaven for quite a while now. In part, the
richness of this performance derives from Parrott’s soloists, then the
unrivalled stars of the English early music scene, including soprano Emma
Kirkby, countertenor James Bowman, and bass David Thomas. Thomas’s
renowned profundity combines here with his wondrous ability to spin a melodic
line and his ever commanding melismatic prowess, marking the bass solos with
memorable distinction. Similarly, Bowman’s electrically-charged
melismas on “For he is like a refiner’s fire” are
excitingly dynamic, and his vowel-rich grace in “And he shall feed his
flock” is one of the high points of the recording.

The choir and orchestra are unflaggingly responsive to Parrott’s
vision of the work—a vision that moves things along with dramatic
urgency and vividly drawn affective content—and they respond with the
stylistic fluency that we have long associated with the various Taverner
ensembles. To this one can only add: “Hallelujah!”

Steven Plank

image_description=G. F. Handel: Messiah
product_title=G. F. Handel: Messiah
product_by=The Taverner Choir & Players; Andrew Parrott, Director
product_id=Virgin Veritas 7243 5 62084 25 [2CDs]