Friday 3 April 2020

A new recording of Handel's first version of Messiah (Dublin 1742) with a largely German speaking cast

 Handel Messiah; Dorothee Mields, Benno Schachtner, Benedikt Kristjansson, Tobias Berndt, Gaechinger Cantorei, Hans-Christoph Rademann; Accentus
Handel Messiah; Dorothee Mields, Benno Schachtner, Benedikt Kristjansson, Tobias Berndt, Gaechinger Cantorei, Hans-Christoph Rademann; Accentus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 April 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The quirky first, Dublin version of Handel's masterpiece from a German choir with a long history of performing Baroque music

Anyone with a moderately long memory will associate the name of the Gaechinger Cantorey with the conductor Helmut Rilling who directed the choir (then called the Gächinger Kantorei) for several decades and developed an impressive pedigree in Baroque music albeit in a style which was larger scale and less attuned to period practice than is the case nowadays. Founded in 1954 by Rilling, since the 2013 the ensemble has been directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann and the choir was refounded and re-named as a smaller ensemble with a period instrument orchestra, rather more in the contemporary historically informed style. Whilst Bach remains the ensemble's focus, Rademann and his performers have also been exploring Handel.

On this set from Accentus, Hans-Christoph Rademann conducts the Gaechinger Cantorey in George Frideric Handel's Messiah with soloists Dorothee Mields (soprano), Benno Schachtner (alto), Benedikt Kristjansson (tenor), Tobias Berndt (bass), using Handel's 1742 Dublin version of the oratorio.

Handel: Messiah - Gaechinger Cantorey recording session, September 2019
Handel: Messiah - Gaechinger Cantorey recording session, September 2019
Messiah went through gradual and continual changes throughout Handel's life, from the 1750s it settled into something like modern standard version (see my selection of recordings at the foot of this review). For anyone unfamiliar with it, the 1742 Dublin version has a number of interesting and striking differences. Handel originally wrote the work in 1741 before he travelled to Dublin, and before he knew who his soloists were which was a very unusual procedure for him. Handel's writing was quite conservative, and to a certain extent the work's performances in London in the 1740 were closer to his intentions as he simplified things for Dublin. Following the successful premiere in Dublin, its London outings were relatively unsuccessful until in 1750 Handel used Messiah to inaugurate the chapel of the Foundling Hospital and what became the annual Foundling Hospital performances went a long way to generating the work's present success. Each performance had some modification, those made in 1745 (many at the librettist Charles Jennens' behest) went a long way toward moving the work towards the one we know, and when in 1754 the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni joined the roster of soloists, Handel created a separate part for him (rather than allocating him to the female alto part, thus creating a version which had five soloists, soprano, contralto, castrato, tenor and bass).

The other point of interest in this recording is that a work traditionally associated with the British choral tradition is being sung in English by a German choir, itself with a long Baroque performing edition, and by a quartet of soloists for whom English is not their mother tongue. The results are impressive and engaging, and the disc certainly repays listening.

Rademann takes a fairly traditional view of the work, though some of his slower tempi are quite slow so that the overture begins in rather stately style albeit with plenty detailed pointing but then the faster section is quite speedy providing something of a contrast.

All four of the soloists cope well with the English language; granted, there is a sprinkling of strange vowels and odd dipthongs, but throughout they all sing the text with clarity and expressiveness. All four ornament the music, often quite discreetly but effectively.

Soprano Dorothee Mields has a light, bright soprano which suits the music well. In the sequence announcing to the Shepherds, she shows great sympathy for the music and the drama, though is womanly too, with no attempt as boyishness. 'Rejoice greatly' is another major change in this version, in a perky compound time (and rather longer), and Mields sings with great joy. She really comes into her own in Part Three, with a fine account of 'I know that my Redeemer liveth',

Handel: Messiah - Hans-Christoph Rademann, Gaechinger Cantorey recording session, September 2019
Handel: Messiah - Hans-Christoph Rademann,
Gaechinger Cantorey recording session, September 2019
Alto Benno Schachtinger has a narrow focused, slightly edgy voice. 'O thou that tellest' is well done but I would have liked a little more warmth of tone. 'He shall feed his flock' is musical and beautifully shaped, but again I would have liked a wider focus to the voice. In all the multifarious versions of Messiah created in Handel's lifetime there was one constant, 'He was despised' was always sung by a woman, which makes Schachtinger's performance somewhat anachronistic. He beautifully musical, and Rademan keeps the aria moving (it still lasts over 10 minutes), though you feel Schachtinger could have dug deeper into the text and the emotion. 'How beautiful are the feet' sees Schachtinger being joined by alto Tobias Knaus (from the choir), for a fine account of the duet where the two voices contrast nicely. Schathtinger and Kristjansson give a plangent account of the duet version of 'O Death, where is thy sting' (though Rademann's tempo is on the steady side). The final aria goes to Schachtinger with 'If God be for us', perhaps slightly too careful and considered, you wanted something a little more joyous.

Tenor Benedikt Kristjansson has a lovely focussed lyric voice, he makes 'Comfort ye' quite pointed whilst 'Ev'ry valley' is impressive for his handling of the passage-work. (Another curiosity of this version is the simple recitative for 'Thou shalt break them'). His English is excellent, in part two 'All they that see him' and 'Thy rebuke' have text well to the fore, whilst 'Behold and see' is beautifully contained, and throughout this sequence Kristjansson impresses with his grasp of the style, though I found Rademann's tempo for 'But though dids't not leave' somewhat too deliberate.

Bass Tobias Berndt has a youthful, flexible voice, he is less thunderous than some (though described as a bass in the CD booklet, Berndt's website refers to him as a baritone) which means that 'Thus saith the Lord' is finely fluent (and if you are unfamiliar the version then the following Refiner's Fire recitative is something of a shock!). Berndt's English has the occasional stray vowel, but he makes a real effort to make the text mean something. 'For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth' is suitably mysterious, and Berndt is equally impressive in Part Three with 'The trumpet shall sound' and its recitative. Here mystery unfolds into something fluid and compelling, yet lighter than some performances.

Handel: Messiah - Gaechinger Cantorey recording session, September 2019
Handel: Messiah - Gaechinger Cantorey recording session, September 2019
In many ways, it is the chorus that makes this recording worth listening to again. There are 22 of them (women and men on the alto line), and they are not only technically impressive, but clearly have done a lot of work on the text. I apologise if I seem to be going on about the text, but one of the important factors in Handelian oratorio is projecting the meaning of the text. This is what the choir (and the soloists) do, as well as singing the faster choruses at some lively tempos, making a lithe, light and well articulated sound. Whilst Rademann takes a largely traditional view of the choruses, though giving his singers some tempo challenges, in places he seems to be deliberately rethinking the music, so that 'Surely' goes at quite a lick, whilst never skating over the meaning, and the Hallelujah chorus has as rather a lighter texture than in many performances, lithe and almost sprightly.

The orchestra (numbering 20) play with real engagement, I was captured by their overture and throughout I kept noticing some fine detail in the orchestral playing. As with the chorus, Rademann keeps things well articulated and frequently lithe and light, this is not a heavy version of the work but one which matches the youthfulness of the singers' voices. One curiosity is that Rademann adds the traditional oboes and bassoon to the orchestra, though Handel did not write for these in Dublin (probably not trusting the quality of the local players).

Recommendable accounts of Handel's Dublin version of Messiah are not that common in the catalogue, though John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2006 recording of it must be high on anyone's list. I have to confess that I have always had a sneaking weakness for the quirks of this version. And to have Messiah performed by so impressively by non-Anglophone forces is impressive. This account of Messiah needs no special pleading; it won't be top of the library shelves but certainly deserves consideration and shows that European performance of Handel's English works is developing its own tradition.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1756) - Messiah (1742, Dublin) [139:59]
Dorothee Mields (soprano)
Benno Schachtner (alto)
Benedikt Kristjansson (tenor)
Tobias Berndt (bass)
Gaechinger Cantorey
Hans-Christoph Rademann (conductor)
Recorded in the Margarethen Kirche, Gotha, September 2019
ACCENTUS ACC30499 2CDs [74:51, 62:08]

Note: Messiah by date - For anyone interested in exploring the various versions of Messiah on disc:
  • 1742: in addition to the present recording there is John Butt's account on Linn Records in the 1742 Dublin version with the Dunedin Consort and soloists Susan Hamilton, Annie Gill, Clare Wilkinson, Nicolas Mulroy, Matthew Brook 
  • 1750: Rene Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi in the version from 1750 when Handel first re-wrote the piece to incorporate alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni, with the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and soloists Kerstin Averno, Patricia Bardon, Lawrence Zazzo, Kobie van Rensburg, Neal Davies
  • 1751:  there is one occasion when Handel did not use a female soprano for Messiah (instead using singers from the Chapel Royal), and Sir David Willcocks, the choir of Kings College, Cambridge and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields give us an evocation of this on EMI Classics, with the soprano solos sung by a group of boys from the choir, plus soloists James Bowman, Robert Tear, Benjamin Luxon, whilst Edward Higginbottom on Naxos recreates this 1751 version exactly, with the choir of New College, Oxford, the Academy of Ancient Music and solosts Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones, Robert Brooks, Iestyn Davies, Toby Spence, Eamonn Dougan
  • 1754: Christopher Hogwood's classic recording on Oiseau Lyre of the Foundling Hospital version (based on Handel's original parts donated to the Foundling  Hospital and still in the Foundling Museum), with the the choir of Christ Church Cathedral and the Academy of Ancient Music and soloists Judith Nelson, Emma Kirkby, Carolyn Watkinson, Paul Elliott, David Thomas, this version is also the one recorded by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort on Archiv with Dorothea Roschman, Bernada Fink, Charles Daniels, Neal Davies. 1754 is the basis (with a few interventions) for Herve Niquet's recording on Alpha with Le Concert Spirituel and soloists Sandrine Piau, Katherine Watson, Anthea Pichanick, Rupert Charlesworth, Andrea Wolf

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Filling an important gap: the sacred music of Henry Aldrich, Oxford divine and contemporary of Purcell, performed on Convivium Records by the Cathedral Singers of Christ Church, Oxford - CD review
  • A dialogue with the past: the chamber music of Riccardo Malipiero from the Rest Ensemble - CD review
  • Sullivan at his peak, but without Gilbert: Haddon Hall gets its first professional recording  - CD review
  • A major addition to the symphonic repertoire: Erkki-Sven Tüür's Symphony No. 9 ;Mythos', commissioned for the centenary of the Republic of Estonia  - CD review
  • All opera is community opera: I chat to director Thomas Guthrie  - interview
  • The Leipzig Circle: piano trios by Schumann, Gade & Mendelssohn from the Phoenix Piano Trio  - CD review
  • Singing in Secret: The Marian Consort in Byrd's mass for four voices and propers for All Saints  - CD review
  • A particular place & time: Peter Sheppard Skaerved explores the 1685 Klagenfurt Manuscript with a contemporary violin by Antonio Stradivari  - CD review
  • Islands and seasons: pianist Tom Hicks in John Ireland and Tchaikovsky   - CD review
  • A seductive mix-tape: pianist Alessandro Viale's Minimal Works  on KHA - CD review
  • A Spanish tribute to Handel: L'Apothéose's delightful disc of chamber music on LBS  - Cd review
  • Lyrical contemporary: record producer Michael Fine's recent works for solo wind instruments and string quartet - CD review
  • Home

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