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G. F. Handel: Messiah
16 Dec 2006

HANDEL: Messiah

Undoubtedly the appearance of Handel’s Messiah in late December means different things to different people.

G. F. Handel: Messiah

The Taverner Choir & Players; Andrew Parrott, Director

Virgin Veritas 7243 5 62084 25 [2CDs]

$11.98  Click to buy

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

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