Monday, April 13, 2020

Comparing recordings of Handel's Messiah

by Tony Magee

With Easter upon us and Christmas only just behind, I find myself reflecting on the multitude of recordings I listened to over the season, of Handel’s Messiah. I love to compare and contrast different recorded versions of the same work. In the case of Messiah, I’m comparing the orchestras, the choirs, the soloists and the conductor’s take on tempi, ornamentation and orchestrations. And of course - the quality of the recording itself.

Getting all the stars to align perfectly is almost impossible, however I’m about to share with you some of my favourite recordings, plus a few that are not so!

Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1960 recording for RCA is visionary, sometimes daring, but always a fascination. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus are joined by soprano Jennifer Vyvyan, contralto Monica Sinclair, tenor Jon Vickers and bass Giorgio Tozzi.

From the opening grandiose chords of the overture, one can tell immediately that this version has been “fiddled with” - by Beecham of course. He once famously remarked, “I hate the harpsichord. It sounds like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.”

And sure enough, the harpsichord is gone, replaced with a harp and sometimes divided cellos. In addition, flutes and a vastly expanded brass section add to the weight of the sound. But it’s not tasteless or over-guilded. It’s done with style, panache and great command.

In actual fact, Beecham himself did not write the new orchestrations. He indicated what he wanted, and left the task to his friend and collaborator, Eugene Goosens.

Beecham’s tempos are sometimes slightly on the slow side, but nothing ridiculous - his reading is one of majesty, depth and vastness, with just enough lag and dither to make sure every note, chord and phrase is well and truely developed.

This is the type of recording I would own, in addition to a more authentic reading. The contrast between the two always offering a welcome and fascinating listening experience to the interpretation of Handel’s masterpiece. Vickers and Vyvyan are the standout soloists. Vyvyan can also be heard on Boult’s mono recording for Decca from the early 1950s. We will return to that version later.

Recording quality is vibrant and rich with great stereo balance and huge dynamic range. Every aspect of this recording is extremely satisfying and is to be treasured. Four LP boxed set, RCA Red Seal SER 5631 (plus 32, 33 and 34).

Sir Charles Mackerras’ reading for EMI was recorded in 1967 and issued as a three LP boxed set. The English Chamber Orchestra are joined by the Ambrosian Singers with soloists, soprano Elizabeth Harwood, contralto Janet Baker, tenor Robert Tear and bass Raymond Herincx.

The score for this particular version, has been prepared and edited by musical scholar Basil Lam, with, according to him, intense attention to detail on Handel’s own particular wishes for performance.

As the overture commences and progresses, one hears instantly a huge amount of period (Baroque) ornamentation: Trills, mordents and turns appear at every available opportunity. It’s the most heavily ornamented version of Messiah that I’ve heard and once again offers a new glimpse into what might have occurred in the composer’s day. Much has been written about Baroque ornamentation and debates rage about how much, how little, when and where it’s appropriate - if at all. Composers of the period were famous for scant instructions on interpretation of the music, apart from the notes themselves on the stave.

Interesting also, is Mackerras’ decision to attack the trills from above and not "on" the note, which is the French style of the day, notably established by Lully, Couperin and Rameau. An odd decision considering we are dealing with a German composer who had long been established in England.

I love this version however because it is done with such authority and precision.

The soloists, in particular, Baker and Herincx sing with conviction and purpose. Robert Tear is not my favourite tenor - verging on a similar style to Peter Pears, also not a favourite of mine. Heavy vibrato and a tendency to “swoop” up to the note rather than gently land on it from above.  

Those things aside, I can highly recommend this recording. It’s done so well and offers the listener a visionary and intelligent performance. Recording quality is excellent, stereo balance fine, dynamics adequate, although I’ve heard better. EMI SLS 774.

Trevor Pinnock conducting the English Consort and The English Consort Choir on the Archiv label is truly charming. Extremely authentic, the orchestral score is presented exactly as written by Handel - strings with two oboes, two trumpets, organ and harpsichord continuo.

Here, we see an attempt by the tenor soloist to embellish his readings - Howard Cook in this case. Whilst he has a beautiful voice, he takes some of the so called “Baroque ornamentation” to extremes, something that could annoy some listeners, particularly if you are used to a “straight” reading, as presented by Kenneth McKellar or George Maran in other earlier recordings. This is a left-over from the reports and accounts of the period, of soloists, particularly sopranos and castrati, embellishing more and more in order to “thrill” audiences with their greedy song-bird approach to a piece in order to outdo each other.

Farinelli (1705 - 1782, born Carlo Broschi) and Caffarelli (1710 - 1783, born Gaetano Majorano) were famous for this and led the charge of vocal gymnastics and showmanship on 18th century stages. They also represent some of the earliest known examples of a made-up “showbiz name” and also a mononym. Many castrati never made it to adult performance level however, as many are reported to have hurled themselves off balconies, towers and church steeples at around ages 15 to 18, unable to cope emotionally with what had been done to them.

This recording from 1988, comes at the cross-over period where records were almost finished and the CD was beginning to reign supreme. As a consequence there is no lavish book with this three LP boxed set, rather the minuscule CD booklet is tucked in under the records. A nice saving on printing costs obviously, but a rather cheap offering for the record enthusiast.

Recording quality on this offering is the best of all the versions I am reviewing in this article. Beautifully balanced and superbly quiet, it is an early digital recording, but one that worked extremely well. In addition it is one of the few versions where the soprano part in the choir is taken by boy sopranos rather than a chorus of ladies. I must admit, I prefer this. Some of the large massed choirs used in other versions with a massive female soprano section can become quite shrill and overpowering on occasions, particularly if there are one or two frustrated soloists in amongst them  - the ones who never quite “made it” but insist on belting things out to prove to all and sundry that they “really do have the goods”!

Another thing that sets this recording apart from others is the dividing up of the contralto solo parts into two. Anne Sophie von Otter takes care of half, billed as contralto and counter-tenor Michael Chance the remaining selection, billed as alto, beginning with But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming. Both these artists are superb. Archiv 423 630-1.

Now we move onto a conductor more noted for his lavish, lush and expansive performances of the Romantic repertoire, particularly Wagner, Mahler, also Beethoven and others. The Hungarian, Georg Solti.

Issued by Decca in 1984 as a three LP set, Solti delivers the work with his own Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Decca insisted at the time on him using Kiri Te Kanawa as the soprano soloist, which actually he had no problem with at all. She was at the top of her form and was Decca’s most lauded, lavished and recorded female singer at the time, having just the year before taken the listening public by storm with the release (also on Decca) of Songs of the Auvergne, arranged for soprano and orchestra by Canteloube.

I must admit, when I first encountered this recording, I was dreading hearing it. I had the feeling that Maestro Solti might apply all the wrong ideas - Romantic ideas. I was wrong.

Solti’s tempos are on the brisk side, but only to the level where it adds vitality, pace and excitement. You will see another version later on, where tempo becomes a problem.

Tenor soloist Keith Lewis, new to me, sings excellently, with a little hint of embellishment here and there in Comfort Ye and Ev’ry Valley, but overall a fairly straight and highly controlled performance.

The orchestra and chorus are rich in delivery, very convincing in performance, and whilst there is little or no ornamentation, everything is done tastefully and masterfully.

I’m not hugely fond of the alto, Anne Gjevang. She has a huge vibrato and a massive operatic sound. As a result, there is plenty of volume and she delivers with conviction and gusto. If you have fallen asleep, she will wake you up.

Is the American choir a problem? No it isn’t. Robust and soaring in sound and texture, the sopranos are sometimes dominating, but overall the balance is excellent and the singing is glorious and pitch perfect, with very tight, almost clipped phrasing. In fact, the precision with which the Chicago choir perform, as well as their dynamics, make this recording a top recommendation. Decca 414 396-1.

The only “period instrument” recording in my selection is the one by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, released by L’OISEAU-LYRE in 1980 as a three LP set.

When this came out, it made a huge impact on me as a young man and I played it over and over. The recording quality sparkled, the tempos were very fast and vibrant, the period instruments, including a drop in pitch to something more akin with the Baroque era - in this case, A415, gave the music a darker almost slightly menacing sound. Modern pitch by-the-way, is A440 in the USA, the United Kingdom and Australia, A442 in most of Europe and A445 in some parts of Russia.

Soloists, particularly soprano Emma Kirkby, who at the time was queen of the “period” Baroque singing style, were light and airy.

Listening to it again in 2020, I find I don’t care for this interpretation these days. It’s certainly valid, but my tastes have become more conservative and what appealed to a young person, perhaps looking for a “new vision” or something almost that the hippie movement might have embraced as “cool” does not appeal as much any more.

Tenor Paul Elliot sings perfectly well and accurately but with little emotion or passion. David Thomas as bass, is accurate but too light a voice to really convince. The big strength with this recording is the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Beautifully pitched, with excellent diction and using boy sopranos rather than female sopranos, they provide a sumptuous and exhilarating performance. 

Having said all that, It still rates in my favourites, but it is my least favourite favourite. Lyrebird D189D3.

Otto Klemperer was a master craftsman conducting and shaping to full musical resolution and satisfaction the central German repertoire of Beethoven and Brahms. His Wagner is highly regarded as well. 

His reading of Messiah however is cold, austere, robotic, ponderous and generally just drab and awful.

The overture has all ornamentation removed, leaving just a block of bars and phrases. Even the repeat of the opening Grave, usually left out in most recordings, is done in exactly the same way as it is stated the first time, with no change in dynamics what-so-ever.

One saving grace in this recording is the tenor singing of Nicolai Gedda. With excellent diction and an effortless flow he delivers his arias with assurity, dragging tempos not with-standing.

Recorded in Kingsway Hall in 1965 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Klemperer and Gedda were not the only visitors to London for these sessions. Soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, outstanding as an interpreter of German Lieder and lighter operatic roles, is disappointing and very much mis-cast. The wrong style of voice, and unsuitable English diction. Bass Jerome Hines, is wooden in delivery - almost as though in a straight-jacket. Grace Hoffman however, exudes a warmth and gentleness as contralto that is perfectly suited to the ambience and majesty of the piece.

Listening to the Hallelujah Chorus I am struck immediately at how poor the choir’s diction is, however they sing with excellent pitch. Phrasing is robotic and metronomic - they sound like a machine.

The other thing that stands out in this recording is the massive amount of compression applied in post-production. Everything is basically at one volume.
I once asked Sydney based recording engineer and producer Richard Lush about the Klemperer sessions in Britain. Richard was a junior assistant engineer to Beatles manager and producer George Martin from 1965 to 1970. Whilst he was not directly involved in any of the classical music recording sessions, he said he remembers clearly the comings and goings of Klemperer both from Abbey Road and Kingsway Hall - a huge towering man, not usually open to humour or chit-chat. Young Richard new the name through another source as well. Otto was the father of Hollywood actor Werner Klemperer, who played the role of Colonel Klink in Hogan's Heros. A dour figure to be respected, or better still for a young junior in the pop industry - avoided.

Colin Davis conducted Messiah in 1966 for Philips, in an unusual Dutch, UK and USA co-production. An all British cast - London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Heather Harper soprano, Helen Watts contralto, John Wakefield tenor and John Shirley Quirk bass. 

Post production and mastering were completed at Fine Recording Studio, Manhattan - named after husband and wife production team Robert Fine and Wilma Cozart (later Wilma Cozart-Fine). Initial pressings were done at Columbia Records Pressing Plant, Terre Haute, Indiana. Liner notes written by German harpsichord specialist (later also an American citizen) Igor Kipnis, from his studio at Tanglewood.

The original 1966 issue was done as a two LP gatefold set, offering a slightly abridged version of Messiah, although they had recorded it in entirety. By far the best pressing to own and the one that is most commonly seen is the Dutch pressing from 1978, issued as a three LP boxed set (on Philips). Recording quality is exquisite, so balanced, and full of dynamic range and depth.

The version is presented as “authentic” although there are so many that lay claim to this - all with such a varying range of ornamentation, tempos and even orchestrations that it is impossible to define any version of Messiah as “authentic” today. One thing I notice is that all orchestral trills are begun on the note, which is normal for German and English Baroque ornamentation. 

All the soloists are superb in this recording - none need to be singled out. Helen Watts however is to be congratulated on the most tasteful ornamentation. You don’t usually hear it coming from the contralto. This really is a breath of fresh air. The choir, directed by John Aldis are superb. Beautiful diction, tight phrasing, pitch perfect but still elastic and flowing, with excellent dynamics.

I recommend this recording very, very highly. Everything is in perfect perspective.

The great Eugene Ormandy had his turn in 1958 with his Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. One thing in particular that enticed listeners to purchase this recording, or at least consider it, was the presence of soprano soloist Eileen Farrell. More on that later.

Similar to Klemperer’s decisions on ornamentation - there is none - Ormandy’s tempos are not as rigid. There is flexibility, almost an elasticity, which keeps the music fresh, alive, exciting and flowing.

Performances by the four soloists are variable. 

Tenor Davis Cunningham presents somewhat of a problem. His vibrato in lower register is un-controlled and has a distasteful fast wobble, combined with unreliable pitch. In addition he drags the tempos. Some of his phrasing climaxes are excellent, but the package as a whole annoys. 

Bass William Warfield is superb. His phrasing is unique and stylish and he adds a new and exciting dimension to a very tried and tested set of arias. With excellent diction as well, his performance is electric, dynamic, full of intensity and then sometimes, tenderness. Warfield provides one of the very best performances available.

Martha Lipton is billed as contralto on this recording, but in actual fact she was a mezzo-soprano who had the range to also sing contralto. Very flexible, and during the 1950s she recorded and performed frequently with Bernstein, Ormandy, Copland and Walter amongst others. I do not care for her performance in this recording of Messiah. Her pitch is unreliable. Ms Lipton does however have a beautiful and unusual tone.

And finally, Eileen Farrell as soprano soloist. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful, lyrical and heartfelt performance. With exquisite phrasing and diction, Ms Farrell commands her arias as her own. You can feel Ormandy following her every phrase and breath. Her’s is a performance combining sublime delicacy with powerful projection and passion. It is one of the great gifts from the history of recorded music.

One astonishing omission from this recording however is piece No. 18 - Rejoice Greatly. In order to squeeze it onto a two record set, the producers have made some cuts. It defies belief that one of them would be this piece - one of the greatest soprano solos ever written, particularly when you have Ms Farrell at hand to sing it.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir are variable. Phrasing is robotic and metronomic. Diction is excellent. The tenors and sopranos are frequently flat, particularly on solo entries. The tenors have a tendency to shout rather than sing. It rather comes across as one of those “a good effort” performances from an amateur choir trying their absolute best, in front of an adoring audience of family and friends.

Recording quality is reasonable, marred by a mid-range peak at about 1500Hz which adds a slightly shrill, almost nasal quality to the sound, not unlike many CBS recordings of this era.

This is a very difficult recording to summarise. It combines some of the finest orchestral playing available. The Philadelphians are just superb and under Eugene Ormandy’s direction deliver a stunning and thrilling performance. Combined with soloists Eileen Farrell and William Warfield, there is much to recommend. The tenor, contralto and choir disappoint, but the strengths outweigh the defects by a long way, so overall I would recommend owning this. The final Amen Chorus was so good, I was moved to tears. Columbia / CBS M2S 607

And finally, the recording I love the most. The tempos are paced perfectly - not too ponderous, not too fast. The orchestra is bold, rich, controlled and applies just the right amount of ornamentation without going over-the-top. Yes, it’s a conservative reading in many respects, but so convincing and so utterly well played and sung.

The recording quality is also very good. The early stereo sound is mixed and balanced to perfection. Never harsh, like some of the digital recordings from the 1980s could be, this is rich, authentic, good old fashioned analogue at its best.

You can listen to this performance in entirety and never experience listener fatigue.

One very special thing that sets this recording apart from all others in my view are the choice and performances of the four soloists.

Sir Adrian Boult conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Joan Sutherland soprano, Grace Bumbry contralto, Kenneth McKellar tenor and David Ward bass. Issued by Decca as a three LP boxed set in 1961.

Boult's 1954 mono recording
Boult had done it previously in 1954, also for Decca in mono with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and a different cast of soloists. This earlier version was the one I grew up with as a child. My father purchased it on first release and I still have that actual copy in my collection today. In fact, I remember him telling me one day, “You know, those records have been played on all kinds of old gramophones, some with thorn needles. The thorn needle actually gave a very nice sound.” 

Thorn needles? Not the Aussie electrical brand - I’m talking about an actual thorn - as in roses, hawthorn bushes and the like!

Boult’s 1961 recording has the advantage of lush, early stereo sound and, with one exception, even better soloists.

Joan Sutherland was at her peak and sings the soprano role exquisitely and gloriously, albeit with her usual and infamous terrible English diction.

Kenneth McKellar is the stand-out of all the soloists. The Scottish tenor is right on the mark in pitch, phrasing, volume, conviction, passion and timbre. His sound is simple in delivery and hard to fault in any way. I’ve always regarded him and Kathleen Ferrier as the two singers of the 20th century, in classical music at any rate, who most perfectly encapsulated the possibilities with the human voice. I’m absolutely not talking about vocal gymnastics, fireworks, embellishments and other ego feeding claptrap. I’m talking about the ability to sing so naturally, so effortlessly, almost in an untrained manner. It’s just singing that flows from the body in a cascade of beautiful sound that is as perfect as a mountain spring, a budding flower, something perfectly formed and also humble. That was their greatness.

African American singer Grace Bumbry also falls into this category and she has few peers in the contralto repertoire. Bass David Ward is amongst my favourites and on this recording delivers the goods with conviction and strength. But he is pipped at the post by another - that one “exception” I mentioned previously from Boult’s earlier recording from the 1950s.

Owen Brannigan sings the bass solo parts in that, and the three big ones are But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming, Why Do the Nations and later in the work, The Trumpet Shall Sound. That recording, Decca LXTA 2921/4 is worth owning just for Brannigan’s contribution alone, as well as the superb harpsichord playing of George Malcolm. It’s very hard to find now and if it does turn up, is likely to be in poor condition. The Americans reissued it as a Vox Box set in the early 1970s with ghastly “electronically simulated stereo sound”, a huge plague on the record buying public at the time. Avoid that one.

World Record Club re-issue of
Boult's 1961 stereo recording
The easiest way of obtaining Boult’s 1961 version - the one I admire so much - is by finding the World Record Club re-issue from the early 1970s. Easily distinguishable by its bright purple cover, it is an excellent pressing, made from the original Decca master tapes and turns up all the time in second-hand record stores.

Also, it was issued on CD (not complete however, just excerpts) in 2007 and reports are that the audio quality is excellent.

There are many, many recorded versions of Handel’s Messiah. I have dealt with just ten. 

To finish, here is an excerpt (period spelling preserved) from the review published in Faulkner’s Journal of April 1742, describing the first performance of Messiah, given in Dublin on the 13th of that month, with Handel himself conducting.

“On Tuesday last, Mr Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, The Messiah, was performed in the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street ; the best judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestik and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”