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GRAMOPHONE (03/2020)
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Alia Vox

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Reviewer: David Vickers

Jordi Savall’s claim that his performance of Messiah is based on Handel’s autograph score in the British Library is puzzling because none of the obvious unique features evident only in the autograph and early versions are reinstated (such as the extra echoing bars in ‘Ev’ry valley’), whereas most alterations Handel made for his later revivals are adopted, as is customary in the majority of modern performances.

This concert, recorded live at Versailles, embraces Le Concert des Nations’ breadth of textured sonorities. Articulate string bowing, fulsome shaping and firmness of inner and bass parts provide crisply delineated support for Nicholas Mulroy’s immaculate messa di voce in ‘Comfort ye’ – and his melismatic flourishes and communicative words in ‘Ev’ry valley’ form a masterclass of intelligent Handel-singing. The assertive rushing strings for ‘the refiner’s fire’ give intense dramatic support to the expressive shapeliness and admirable embellishments of Damien Guillon, whose sensitive voice has momentary cracks in ‘O thou that tellest good tidings’ and seems more at home in the slow pathos of ‘He was despised’, even if its serenity is undermined by choppy string ritornellos.

The bucolic quality of the full-length Pifa is enhanced in its final section by warm oboes. A strangely sedate pace is adopted for ‘And suddenly there was with the angel’, whereas a very brisk ‘Rejoice greatly’ pits Rachel Redmond’s limpid brilliance against the thrilling momentum of the unison violins. ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ are sung gorgeously by Redmond in partnership with the full violin section led sweetly by Manfredo Kraemer. Matthias Winckhler’s precise declamatory eloquence shines in ‘Why do the nations’ (Savall’s steady pulse maximising harmonic tension in the strings) and an amiably regal ‘The trumpet shall sound’ (featuring brave ornamentation and Guy Ferber’s first-class natural trumpet-playing).

The 22-strong La Capella Reial de Catalunya’s balanced timbres and excited élan convey swaggering confidence, although there is also affecting subtlety in the harmonic shading of cadences in ‘Since by man came death’ and the unfolding fervour of the ‘Amen’ finale. A fraction more airiness and nuance in fugal expositions might have been useful from time to time. Trumpets in ‘Glory to God’ are not audibly in the distance (as Handel instructs), and exaggerated slowing-down at each iteration of ‘and peace on earth’ is an unconvincing mannerism – as are the questionable choral trills throughout ‘Behold the lamb of God’. Nevertheless, elsewhere there is no-nonsense directness in choruses of gutsy resonance and emotive impact, and we do not wait long for upfront splendour in ‘Hallelujah’. Offering orchestral vigour, an assured quartet of soloists (Redmond and Mulroy particularly classy), vivid choral grandeur and surefooted theatrical pacing, this is an enjoyable all-rounder.

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