WITH SO MANY performances of Handel's Messiah given in Washington during December, one might well feel no need to own a recording of the work. However, those who do not regard the oratorio as a seasonal phenomenon (and many who do) are happy to have so handsome an array of recordings from which to choose for year-round listening. These range from the traditional beefy-Victorian approach with mammoth choruses and solemn tempos, to Mozart's reorchestrated versions, to the colorful touch-up by Sir Thomas Beecham, to Baroque-framed versions with countertenor and chamber choir, to scholarly reconstructions of the original Dublin and London prsentations of 1742 and 1743.
Perhaps no one has charged the choral sections of Messiah with such grand, vivid excitement as Hermann Scherchen did in his mono recording of 1953, long deleted now. But for the last dozen years the performance recorded by Colin Davis (Phillips C 71 AX 300; kcassettes 7699.009) has more than held its own against the previous and subsequent versions. One of the latter, however, is so striking in its new open-reel format that the performance itself mus be reevaluated in more positive terms.
When Neville Marrinerhs recording of Messiah was issued on discs two years ago (Argo D18D3), it was roundly admired for its vigor, for the fine quartet of soloists headed by Elly Ameling, and for birlliant execution on the part of all the vocal and instrumental participants. The performance used Christopher Hogwood's performing edition, based on the London premiere of 1743 (Davis' is based more or less on the Dublin premiere of the previous year). Marriner's approach, however, exhilarating and inspiriting to some listeners, struck many others as too zippy by half. This Messiah is one of the first Argo recordings to be processed for release on open-reel tape by Barclay-Crocker under its new arrangement with London/Decca, and in this form (ARG V D18D3) it is virtually irresistible. The stunning openness of the sound seems somehow to eliminate the feeling of breathless that made for some discomfort on the discs; in any event, the psychological effect of the splendid sound is to enhance substantially an already attractive performance-just as B-'s tape edition of Kurt Masur's Mendelssohn symphony package (Vanguard Z 10133) did a few months ago.
Indeed, the medium becomes a greater part of the message in this case, for, while the Mendelssohn set is also a "must" item in its disc edition (Vanguard Cardinal VSC-101333/836), it is only in the open-reel format that the Marriner Messiah is so extremely attractive-and it is quite a showpiece. One wonders now, of course, how much brighter and more alive the still superior Davis performance might seem if reproocessed in this medium with similar care.
In the meantime, a similar transformation, without involving a transfer to a new format, has brought us a gorgeous version of another Handel favorite, the Water Music , which has turned up on the economical Quintessence label (disc PMC-7085; cassette P4C-7085). The performance, by the conductorless Collegium Aureum of Stuttgart was recorded by Harmonia Mundi in 1971 and was available briefly on the short-lived BASF label. The difference between that edition and Steven Vining's remastering for Quinstessence is even more striking than that between the disc and tape editions of the Marriner Messiah : The Argo discs are themselves excellent, and the tape transfer brought the advanstages associated with that medium, while the domestically pressed BSAF discs were generally poor specimens and the improvement has been wrought in the same format. The performance itself now may be recognized as the gem it is: a splendid performing edition, "original instruments" played as brilliantly and accurately as modern ones, tempos and that are just about ideal. I know of none more satisfying at any price, and Peter Eliot Stones's annotation is a not substantial bonus.
Also new on Quintessence is another Harmonia Mundi recording, this one formerly available on Victrola under the heading "Dance Music of the Renaissance" and now titled "Greatest Hits of the 1500s: Favorite Renaissance Dances" (PMC-7088; cassette P4C-7088). In this case there is no dramatic improvement in the sound, which was quite good on Victrola and is perhaps a little smoother now, but there is the availability of the cassette edition. On disc or cassette, this one of the most attractive collections of its kind, offering intriguing pieces by Tielman Susato, Claude Gervaise, Jacques Momderne, Pierre Phalese, Christoph Demantius, Pierre Attaignant, Hans Leo Hassler and Melchior Franck, played with great flair and assurance by a group of a well-known specialists in such material-Ferdinand Conrad, recorder and crumhorn; Ilse Brix-Meinert, Ulrich Koch and Guenther Lemmen, viola; Johannes Koch and Heinrich Haeferland, viola da gamba; Otto Steinkopf, dulcian, and the late Walter Gerwig, lute.