Saturday 29 June 2013

Messiah - Les Arts Florissants

You only have to play the opening bars of the overture on this disc to know who is performing it. William Christie, conducting his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, brings an ineffable French polish to Handel's music. Rhythms are sprung just so and there are some very French sounding ornaments scattered about the work. Christie recorded Handel's Messiah in 1993, with a fine multinational cast of soloists, Barbara Schlick, Sandrine Piau, Tommy Williams, Andreas Scholl, Mark Padmore and Nathan Berg plus the chorus and orchestra of Les Arts Florissants. Amazingly, recorded 20 years ago.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have by now spotted the number of soloists. Christie uses a treble to sing the opening sequence of soprano solos, and then the remainder is shared between Barbara Schlick and Sandrine Piau. Though one of the articles in the booklet refers to the varying number of soloists Handel used in the work (and he did on occasion use multiple sopranos), no explanation for the use of two sopranos here is ever given.  The version used is essentially that Handel was performing in the late 1750's (including the chorus Their sound is gone out from 1745 and the later versions of But who may abide and Thou art gone up on high from 1750 written for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni), though unlike some historically informed performances Christie does not adhere to a particular date. But from 1749, Handel often used two sopranos (Giulia Frasi and Caterina Galli) at his Foundling Hospital performances of Messiah.

Both the soloists and the choir have a very international line up, so we must address the issue of language. It just is not acceptable to suffer Messiah sung in poor English and Christie does not expect us to. All the singers, soloists and chorus, sing with admirable English. Granted, it is possible to catch the soloists out, English dipthongs are notoriously difficult to get right. but there is nothing that grates, all concerned sound comfortable and expressive.

But there is another aspect to text. Oratorios are about words, Charles Jennens intended the libretto for Messiah to have a clear message and it is important that the drama of the text comes over. And simply, I am not sure that it always does.

Schlick and Piau both make sympathetic and mellifluous soprano soloists. Schlick has a very appealing plangent quality to her voice and Piau is her familiar intelligent self. But, for my taste, both performers are about the notes, their beauty and shape rather than the meaning of the words. Both contribute some intelligently beautiful singing so you may think I am being picky. Tommy Williams sings the angel, in part one, with clear tones.

Andreas Scholl contributes some gloriously fluid singing in the alto solos. It may be worth remembering that Handel never used a man for the solo He was despised (when he had the services of the alto castrato Guadagni, Handel created new solos for him). Scholl's He was despised is fine grained, poised and beautifully done, but for me he just doesn't dig deep enough. Elsewhere he is profoundly beautiful and not unsympathetic to the words and bringing out their meaning.

Tenor Mark Padmore gives us a text book example of how to sing Messiah. Fluid passagework, incisive tone and attention to the words combine with musical intelligence to make his contribution notable. He is well partnered by Nathan Berg in the bass solos, similarly clear of words and bringing a robust vigour to the solos with a notable The trumpet shall sound.

The chorus is on good form, there are 25 singers (with 33 instrumentalists) and they sing fluently, coping with some fast passagework as William Christie's tempi can be on the fast side. They do bring dramatic effects ot the choruses, Since by man came death is notable for its extreme contrasts and in others they do develop a real feeling of drama. But at other times, there is a feeling of skating over the drama. With performances as technically fine as this, I wanted the chorus to feel more involved with the drama.

The recording has been re-issued in the Harmonia Mundi Gold series. There is a fine article by Donald Burrows providing background. But if you want to read Jean-Francois Labie's article, you have to read it in French (Burrows article is given in English and German). There is a  full text along with French and German translations. The performance is fitted onto two CD's by dint of putting the break after the chorus All we like sheep in part two, which might begin to jar on repeated listening.

Regarding other performances of the work on disc, you take your choice. Rene Jacobs, the choir of Clare College Cambridge and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with Kerstin Avemo, Patricia Bardon, Lawrence Zazzo, Kobie van Rensburg, Neil Davies reconstruct the version from 1750 with additional alto solos created for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Edward Higginbottom, the choir of New College, Oxford and the Academy of Ancient Music with Iestyn Davies, Toby Spence, Eammon Dougan and trebles from the choir reconstruct the version from 1751 when Handel used trebles for the soprano solos. Whereas John Butt and the Dunedin Consort and Players, with Susan Hamilton, Annie Gill, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook reconstruct the version from Dublin in 1742. Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music's now venerable recording based on the Foundling Hospital parts remains a good central choice. And Harry Christophers and the Sixteen provide a finely sung account of the traditional version. You can find a useful list of version and their reviews at the Music Web International page devoted to Messiah.

 Christie and Les Arts Florissants give a poised and very stylish performance of the music. This disc is technically of a high order, but seems to be Handel spoken with a slight foreign accent. Some listeners may welcome the performances as interesting and nothing that William Christie does is uninteresting.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Messiah (1742/1750) [2:22:40]
Barbara Schlick (soprano)
Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Tommy Williams (treble)
Andreas Scholl (alto)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Nathan Berg (bass)
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie (conductor)
Recorded December 1993

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