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Fanfare Magazine: 39:4 (03-04/2016) 
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BR Klassik 900510

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Reviewer: Huntley Dent

Performance style in Messiah has settled into its own comfort zone, and this excellent new version under the talented Dutch chorus master Peter Dijkstra makes no pretense of breaking new ground. Where Bach studies contain hot-button issues, angry disputes, and considerable confusion over right and wrong practices, Messiah belongs to the consumer products division of Baroque performance. The shelves are laden with enough choices—ArkivMusic currently lists 91 complete recordings—that it’s a buyer’s market. Traditionalists can time travel back to high-Victorian choral festivals with Beecham and Boult or prune the regiments of singers down to modified traditionalism with Richard Westenburg or Andrew Davis. But we sheep don’t generally go astray anymore, adhering to some form of HIP style that Handel himself would have recognized.

With Colin Davis laying down the template for reduced forces and (more importantly) minimized piousness 50 years ago, the flight from tradition has accelerated over the years. I still love Davis’s first Messiah (Philips), but it was Robert Shaw’s use of a small, highly professional chorus around the same time (RCA) that revealed how difficult Handel’s choral writing really is and how magnificent it sounds when approached with superior technique. In that regard, Dijkstra works much the same magic with his small (32 members) Bavarian Radio Chorus, singing in impeccable English—even the German habit of pronouncing “the” as “theh” has been corrected—and displaying faultless musicality.

But technical hurdles matter little in the modern landscape of Handel singing. More critical is the tendency, as I see it, to make Messiah too meek and mild. The Baroque was an international movement in all the arts that drew popular attention for its extravagance, luxury, unbounded love of decoration, and fervent emotion. Handel was the master of all these qualities, and we wouldn’t have the near-violence of the vocal line in “Why do the nations rage?” without the revenge arias that preceded it in his Italian operas. In addition, the liberalization of religious tolerance begun under the Hanoverian kings permitted biblical verses and stories to appear in theaters instead of churches, but this didn’t mean that Messiah was considered frivolous—starting with the composer himself, it was accepted as deeply devotional as well as dramatic.

I’ve mounted my hobby horse because the model for modern performances seems bleached of reverence and human drama. Gardiner, Pinnock, Hogwood, and Parrott set in place a non-reverential style that’s not very entertaining either. One understands why there was a (predictable) reaction against churchiness. Fortunately, the consumer shelf does contain recordings that exude drama, such as William Christie’s, and even stretch the limits of excited energy, as Marc Minkowski does. Yet, scanning my memory for a Messiah that’s just right, I’d plump for this new release as one of the very best.

It’s still on the meek side at times—as in the simpering tone of “He was despised” where anguish is called for, but far more important is the human drama unfolded by Dijkstra, who takes a mystical view of the coming savior— to minimize controversy over portraying Christ on stage, Messiah’s text avoids the New Testament in favor of the Old, where the topic is not Jesus but the One who is to come. “Behold the lamb of God” is done with hushed awe and great sensitivity to what it means for the devout to contemplate a redeemed world. Eschewing fervency, the general style in the arias is gentle and humane. But Dijkstra skirts meekness by giving us a reading that’s quietly soulful. Nothing is antiseptic. This is definitely not music for music’s sake, which has been a baleful tendency in HIP aesthetics.

The two soloists who stand out among the four are tenor Steve Davislim and bass-baritone Neal Davies. Both take the inherent drama of their arias seriously and sing out with passion and force. The score is notorious vocally for giving the tenor two of the most difficult solos in the whole work, “Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley,” right off the bat. Davislim handles both with a beautiful, steady tone that rivals anyone I’ve ever heard. Davies is given “The people that walked in darkness” at a pace quick enough not to turn into a dirge, and he rises to the occasion with a version of “The trumpet shall sound” that remains engrossing from beginning to end. Overall, he performs with the kind of bite and bravura not heard since John Shirley-Quirk under Colin Davis.

The other two soloists are considerably less forceful. Soprano Julia Doyle has a light, flutey voice that’s capable of swift agility—no one has ever taken “Rejoice greatly” faster, I’ll wager, complete with a few high-flying ornaments—but she’s short on pathos. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, taking the alto solos, poses no fear of sounding squawky or androgynous. He has a beautiful, feminine tone, but there’s not much power or force. Like Doyle, he’s also short on pathos and depth of feeling. Even so, the entire quartet is lively and musical.

I’m not sure that liveliness should be the prevailing tone of a Messiah performance, but such is the age we’re passing through. Dijkstra’s rhythms spring and dance all the time, even in the solemnity of “Lift up your heads,” for example. At least his sprung rhythms aren’t like mousetraps snapping shut on your finger. There’s a pleasing warmth and roundness to the singing and playing here. The small B’rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra displays a sweet, feathery string sound using gut strings that never grows zingy. Dijkstra is an excellent orchestral conductor, which helps to unify everything that happens, but there’s little prominence to the oboes and bassoon discreetly buried inside the string ensemble. (We aren’t given a personnel roster, so I’m counting heads and squinting at a small photo to glean any details about who is on stage.)

Finally, there’s the question of editions and variants, about which I can say next to nothing since the booklet is silent on both subjects. “Rejoice greatly” is done in the standard 4/4 meter rather than the easier revision in triplets. Vocal ornamentation is added, most of the time, to da capo repeats; Handel’s melodic lines aren’t actually rewritten, however. I hear variants in the choral writing, too, but only in passing. Dijkstra has taken the position that the dynamic range of the music is limited, hovering around mezzo forte much of the time—no whispering in terror or shouting in jubilation allowed. Therefore, we aren’t talking about a performance where religious feeling embraces the widest range of emotions. I’m just grateful that Messiah is treated as what it was meant to be, a religious entertainment to uplift and excite its audience. Excellent recorded sound; cardboard packaging with text in English and German.

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