The monumental performance of Handel's "Messiah," given in the Washington Cathedral a year ago under the auspices of the University of Maryland Handel Festival, has finally been issued in a recording (Pro Arte 2PAD 232, two LPs with booklet) that must certainly be considered one of the outstanding recordings of the year.
Its arrival coincided with this year's Handel Festival -- and, by no coincidence, is in good time for Christmas. Production of the compact disc edition is lagging behind the LP (which has a compact disc-sized booklet), but if the LP sound is a fair indication, the CD should be stunning.
Anyone who has heard music in the cathedral, particularly music involving a large chorus and orchestra, knows how clarity vanishes in that building's reverberant acoustics. In this recording, an orchestra of about 100 and a chorus of about 325 are presented with the kind of clarity one usually associates with chamber music; every orchestral semiquaver, every choral syllable is heard with precision. It may not accurately represent what can be heard in a live performance there, but it would be churlish in this case to scold Pro Arte's ingenious engineers for improving on nature.
The performance, with Antal Dorati conducting members of the University of Maryland and Cathedral choruses and most of the old-instrument specialists in the United States, is as impressive as the sound. In the quest for authenticity, it has become the custom in recent years to perform "Messiah" with reduced forces. Now, those who like the old-fashioned sound of a giant chorus and orchestra in this music can have it without sacrificing authenticity. This recording is based on an actual performance given in Westminster Abbey in 1784, which marks the beginning of Handel's enshrinement as a classic. The Washington orchestra was a bit smaller than the London one of two centuries earlier (we don't have that many players on archaic instruments), and the chorus is a bit larger (we have plenty of singers), but the effect must be reasonably close to the original and in any case it is magnificent.
About a dozen numbers in "Messiah" have more than one authentic version; Handel rewrote frequently for repeat performances in his lifetime and never organized what can be called a definitive edition. An impressive effort has been made to determine which version of each number was used in the 1784 performance. As a result, some listeners may be disoriented to hear unfamiliar settings of favorite numbers ("How beautiful are the feet," for example), but the alternate versions are also splendid.
The performance is outstanding, particularly from the chorus and orchestra but also from the soloists. Countertenor James Bowman and bass Tom Krause stand out, but soprano Edith Mathis and tenor Claes Ahnsjo are also fine. One might quibble with maestro Dorati about a tempo here, an accent there, but he has given us a "Messiah" that is unique in its value both as historic documentation and as music for enjoyment. The booklet reproduces the libretto of the 1784 performance and adds fascinating notes about the scholarly and musical aspects of this production.
Other recent recordings of Baroque music:
*Handel: Duetti e Cantate da Camera. Judith Nelson, soprano; Rene' Jacobs, countertenor; instrumentalists of Concerto Vocale (Harmonia Mundi compact disc HMC 901004, with texts). There could hardly be any contrast more striking than that of "Messiah" with these delicate miniatures composed by Handel during his stay in Italy before he settled in London. They are vocal chamber music of the highest quality. They give no inkling that the graceful young composer might later produce anything like the "Hallelujah" chorus, though there is a clear pre-echo of "For unto us a child is born." Rene' Jacobs has developed a strong Washington following in recent years, thanks largely to his work at the annual Handel Festival, and his soprano partner is equally adept in Baroque style and is a superb singer. Compared to "Messiah," this is a specialized taste but one well worth developing. The booklet gives the Italian texts with French translations.
*Monteverdi: Sacred Vocal Music. Emma Kirkby, soprano; Ian Partridge, tenor; David Thomas, bass, with an ensemble of Baroque instruments (Hyperion compact disc CDA 66021, with texts and translations).
*Monteverdi: Il Ballo delle Ingrate; La Sestina. Les Arts Florissants ensemble, William Christie (Harmonia Mundi compact disc HMC 901108, with texts and translations).
*Schutz: Italian Madrigals. Concerto Vocale, directed by Rene' Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi compact disc HMC 901162).
In Monteverdi and in Schutz, who mastered the Italian style and transplanted it to Germany, one can trace the roots of the musical idiom that Bach and Handel brought to its culmination a century later. All three discs listed have a special interest. "Il Ballo delle Ingrate," a theatrical piece with vocal music and dancing, is the finest work of art among them (and receives a dazzling performance), but the religious music disc (nine short works, ranging from two to eight minutes in length) shows the hand of the same master enriching religious expression with operatic resources. The madrigals (with Italian texts) are perhaps the least-known works of Schutz who, even in his 400th anniversary year, has not received all the attention he deserves. Composed in the fading years of the madrigal tradition, they rank with the finest work in the form by Italian masters and their existence helps to explain the special sweetness the composer brought to German religious music.
*The Singing Club. Music of Ravenscroft, Lawes, Purcell, Arne and others. The Hilliard Ensemble (Harmonia Mundi compact disc HMC 901153). Those who wonder what was being sung in the taverns while Handel's operas and oratorios were being performed nearby will find a rousing answer in this superbly performed collection for unaccompanied male voices, which also explores the roots of the barbershop quartet tradition. The material ranges from the forthrightly bawdy to exquisite settings of poems by Shakespeare and Herrick; the time span runs up to the Victorian era, but its focus is on the kind of amateur music-making Handel might have heard when he went out for an evening of relaxation.