Jun 24

Georg Friedrich Handel – Messiah, HWV 56 – Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, B’Rock, Peter Dijkstra (2015)
FLAC (tracks) 24-bit/48 kHz | Time – 02:15:30 minutes | 1,38 GB | Genre: Classical
Studio Master, Official Digital Download – Source: Qobuz | Digital Booklet | © BR Klassik
Recorded: München, Herkulessaal, 21.-27.11.2014

As a steady favourite with audiences, Handel’s most famous oratorio “Messiah” has met regularly with rapturous receptions ever since its premiere back in 1742! This three-part masterpiece portrays the life of the “anointed one” (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’), from the Annunciation and his birth to his death on the cross and revelation, and contains a considerable number of baroque super-hits – including the world-famous ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’

What makes the present complete recording into something really special is, above all, the successful interpretation with its excellent line-up of performers: Julia Doyle, Lawrence Zazzo, Steve Davislim and Neal Davies, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (recently called “a new center for historically informed performance practice”) under the overall direction of Peter Dijkstra, accompanied by B’Rock, the Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent.

This recording of Handel’s masterpiece was recorded at performances in Munich in November 2014. I’m not sure quite how many members of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks were involved – the booklet photos suggest just over forty singers took part. I’ve heard this choir on many occasions in the past – usually at fuller strength than here – and their excellence can pretty much be taken as read. However, I’ve not previously encountered the Belgian period instrument ensemble B’Rock. They contribute very stylish, crisp playing here. The performance is under the direction of Peter Dijkstra, the choir’s Artistic Director since 2005.
Dijkstra sets out his stall at the outset with a cleanly articulated, crisp and fleet account of the Overture. During the course of the performance his tempi are often swift but there weren’t too many occasions when I felt that the music was being rushed. Furthermore, he’s prepared to adopt a relaxed or spacious speed when the need arises. From time to time I noticed a little bit of fussiness about dynamics but these were isolated instances. The members of B’Rock play extremely well for him.

The choir’s contribution is one of the great pleasures of this performance. The singing is consistently alert and precise – as you’d expect from a professional ensemble – and their diction is crystal clear, allowing us to hear that their pronunciation of the English text is faultless. The choir is capable of producing a nice, full sound but this is never overdone. ‘For unto us a child is born’ is lightly sung, the performance invigorating and joyful. There’s excellent discipline in such choruses as ‘His yoke is easy’ and ‘All we like sheep’. The big moments, such as ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ make a satisfying impact. Anyone acquiring this set should feel more than satisfied with the choral singing.

Dijkstra opts for a male alto rather than a female – there are arguments for either. His soloist is the American counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo. I enjoyed much of what he does though I felt that once or twice he overplayed his hand in the matter of decoration. I noticed that, for example, in the da capo of ‘But who may abide the day of His coming’ – yet I relished his vocal athleticism in the faster sections of this aria. Similarly, parts of ‘He shall feed his flock’ were a bit too elaborate for my taste. For comparison I turned to the Stephen Layton performance that I reviewed a few years ago. There the alto soloist is Iestyn Davies, who I thought was the pick of Layton’s solo team. He, too, decorates the line, of course, but in a way that seems less obtrusive to me. Also, as a matter of purely subjective taste, I prefer Davies’s rather ‘narrower’ tone to Zazzo’s more fulsome sound. Having decided that I prefer Layton’s alto in ‘He shall feed his flock’ I should record that I preferred the more languorous speed that Peter Dijkstra adopts in this number; his speed invests the music with rather more expression than Layton allows.

My reason for taking the Layton performance down from the shelves, however, was that both recordings use the same soprano: Julia Doyle. I like her contribution to this Dijkstra performance. She uses many of the embellishments that she deployed in the Layton version but I have the impression that she decorates her lines slightly less in the Layton performance than she does for Dijkstra. Here I like the agile, happy rendition of ‘Rejoice greatly’. As on the Layton recording the 4/4 version is performed – I must admit to a preference for the compound-time alternative. Dijkstra’s tempo is quite brisk but Miss Doyle is unfazed. Later she offers a lovely, poised account of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. We also hear her in the second half of the so-called Passion Arias in Part II for Peter Dijkstra opts to switch from tenor to soprano solo for ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ and its preceding accompagnato. Incidentally, the booklet compiler was clearly unaware of the change of soloist for all four of these items are listed as being sung by the tenor. The use of a soprano at this point is by no means unusual and Miss Doyle sings the music beautifully. However, I think the switch of voice is a mistake. These numbers represent a pivotal shift between the sorrow of the suffering of Christ and the joy of the Resurrection. The whole of Part II – and, arguably, of the whole oratorio – is turned around here and I believe there’s a very strong argument that this is best conveyed through one voice.

Dijkstra’s tenor is the Malaysian-born Australian, Steve Davislim. As it happens, I find the way that he delivers his portion of the Passion Arias rather disappointing. He’s certainly expressive in ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ and ‘Behold, and see’. However, for my taste he uses too full a voice and there’s no real sense of inwardness. He’s better in the opening solos, ‘Comfort ye’ and ‘Ev’ry valley’ to both of which his clear articulation and vocal ring are well suited. ‘Thou shalt break them’ in Part II also suits his dramatic style but in this aria I disliked the slight holding back that he regularly deploys on the words ‘Thou shalt’; it sounds affected.
The bass is Neal Davies and he’s very much to my taste. In ‘Why do the nations?’ he offers splendidly dramatic singing – there’s terrific vocal presence here – and in the section that begins ‘The kings of the earth rise up’ his articulation of the notes is enviable. The highlight of his contribution, however, is ‘The trumpet shall sound’. In the outer sections his singing is truly commanding and he sounds absolutely splendid. But what really made me sit up and take notice was the quietly lyrical, almost confiding way in which he delivers the central section, ‘For this corruptible must put on incorruption’; this is understanding and imaginative Handel singing.

Despite one or two slight reservations this is a version of Messiah that I enjoyed very much. At the end of his note accompanying his own recording Stephen Layton pointed out that performances of this great oratorio are never the same: “Handel’s Messiah is ever renewed.” I certainly felt that about this recording. The performance is relayed in a recording that is clean, clear and well-balanced. Though it’s a live performance there’s no intrusion by the audience – and there’s no applause. The documentation is good but I do feel it’s a bit rude to include information about the choir, orchestra and conductor but not a word about the soloists. ~~John Quinn, MusicWeb International

Tracklist:

Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759)
Messiah
Oratorio in Three Parts for solo, chorus and orchestra, HWV 56

Part I
1. Symphony: Grave 02:59
2. Accompagnato: Comfort ye my people (Tenor) 03:01
3. Aria: Ev’ry valley shall be exalted (Tenor) 03:16
4. And the glory of the Lord (Chorus) 02:30
5. Accompagnato: Thus saith the Lord (Bass) 01:22
6. Aria: But who may abide the day of his coming (Alto) 04:18
7. And he shall purify the sons of Levi (Chorus) 02:32
8. Behold, a virgin shall conceive (Alto) 00:25
9. Aria: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (Alto,… 05:08
10. Accompagnato: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth… 02:06
11. Aria: The people that walked in darkness have seen a… 03:34
12. For unto us a child is born (Chorus) 03:55
13. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony): Larghetto 00:56
14. Recitative: There were shepards abiding in the field… 00:14
15. Accompagnato: And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon… 00:19
16. Recitative: And the angel said unto them (Soprano) 00:31
17. Accompagnato: And suddenly there was with the angel… 00:17
18. Glory to God in the highest (Chorus) 01:52
19. Aria: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (Soprano) 04:14
20. Recitative: Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d… 00:30
21. Aria: He shall feed his flock (Soprano, Alto) 05:26
22. His yoke is easy (Chorus) 02:18

Part II
23. Behold, The Lamb of God (Chorus) 03:11
24. Aria: He was despised and rejected of men (Alto) 10:18
25. Surely, he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… 01:36
26. And with his stripes we are healed (Chorus) 01:40
27. All we like sheep (Chorus) 03:58
28. Accompagnato: All they that see him (Tenor) 00:39
29. He trusted in God (Chorus) 02:16
30. Accompagnato: Thy rebuke hath broken his heart (Tenor) 01:43
31. Arioso: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow (Tenor) 01:17
32. Accompagnato: He was cut off (Tenor) 00:16
33. Aria: But thou didst not leave his soul in hell (Tenor) 02:07
34. Lift up your heads (Chorus) 03:00
35. Recitative: Unto which of the angels said he at any time… 00:13
36. Let all the angels of God worship him (Chorus) 01:29
37. Aria: Thou art gone up on high (Alto) 03:07
38. The Lord gave the word (Chorus) 01:11
39. Aria: How beautiful are the feet (Soprano) 02:21
40. Their sound is gone out into all lands (Chorus) 01:23
41. Aria: Why do the nations so furiously rage together (Bass) 02:47
42. Let us break their bonds asunder (Chorus) 01:46
43. Recitative: He that dwelleth in heaven (Tenor) 00:12
44. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron (Tenor) 02:04
45. Hallelujah (Chorus) 03:37

Part III
46. Aria: I know that my Redeemer liveth (Soprano) 05:25
47. Since by man came death (Chorus) 02:16
48. Accompagnato: Behold, I tell you a mystery (Bass) 00:34
49. Aria: The trumpet shall sound (Bass) 08:49
50. Recitative: Then shall be brought to pass (Alto) 00:16
51. Duet: O death, where is thy sting (Alto, Tenor) 00:58
52. But thanks be to God (Chorus) 02:02
53. Aria: If God be for us (Soprano) 04:24
54. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain (Chorus) 03:17
55. Amen (Chorus) 03:50

Personnel:
Julia Doyle soprano
Lawrence Zazzo countertenor
Steve Davislim tenor
Neal Davies bass baritone
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
B’Rock – Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent
Peter Dijkstra conductor