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Handel - Messiah / Avemo, Bardon, Zazzo, van Rensburg, Davies, Clare College, Freiburg, Jacobs
George Frideric Handel, René Jacobs, Freiburger Barockorchester
Handel - Messiah / Avemo, Bardon, Zazzo, van Rensburg, Davies, Clare College, Freiburg, Jacobs
Genre: Classical


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Messiah: A Vivid, Colorful Drama w Sense of Occasion
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 12/09/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"As Messiah became popular, Handel revised it to fit new situations and new casts of available musicians/singers. In this set we get the 1750 London version, conducted by the composer himself. That meant enriching the line-up by adding the famous star castrato singer, Guadagni (who later created Gluck's Orfeo), to the regular four solo voices. Then add the choir, and the players.

Rene Jacobs is leading here, and he does a fine job, using very fine forces. His band is the talented and alert periodistas of Freiburger Barockorchester. They are brilliant players with complete command of their instruments, and an abiding interest in textures, sounds, and creative phrasings. Vigor never papers over a lack of imagination in their playing, and indeed that may be said for the choir and the soloists, too.

The chorus is better than fine. Clare College was the first mixed voice choir at Cambridge University. If you have heard their other recordings, you will already know them. If not, welcome to their fan club. They exude youth, vitality - which given their ages is hardly surprising. They also have been trained to within an inch of their technical lives, or so it would seem as I listen. Is there any nook or cranny of light and shadow in this sacred drama that they are not willing to explore? Just listen to how their arriving angels appear and fly down from the heavens and disappear again in the annunciation choruses right after the Pifa. Just hear how sadly they recall the tragic aspects of our human condition in Behold the Lamb of God. Let their sung lift raise your spirits in Lift Up Your Heads. Given the sheer textual and musical range written into this oratorio, their willingness to go where the music goes, instead of limiting the music to their own lovely backyard at university, is better than admirable. By the time you get to the huge, concluding Amen chorus fugue, you will probably be thinking of Handel's famous (if perhaps apocryphal) dictum: I should be sorry if I only entertained them, sir, for I wished to make them better.

Soloists include: Kerstin Avemo (sop), Patricia Bardon (alto), Kobie van Rensburg (ten), Neal Davies (bass), and Lawrence Zazzo as counter-tenor taking Guadagni's star role. Each has a substantial voice able to encompass both the parlando vocalisms of the recitative and the more florid displays of the arias. Ms. Aveno is a vocal angel herself announcing the angels appearing, and she is delighted and delightful, singing Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion. Ms. Bardon is all expository gravitas and tender compassion for the human condition in her great aria, He Was Despised, and she can toss and lilt with the best of them in her more florid arias, too. Her duets with Zazzo and van Rensburg are sweet-voiced and lovely to hear. Mr. van Rensburg has a clear bell of a high voice, lithe, shining, muscular. He shows a true ringing tenor metal with a genuine lower voice and a near-velvet-gloved middle voice. Mr. Davies is the real deal bass. He grabs us by the neck in Why Do The Nations, and urges mystical hope upon us in The Trumpet Shall Sound. Mr. Zazzo is equal to the other soloists, and we get nothing of the pale, washed-out vocal presences that passed for having an alternative voice, once upon a time. He can be pensive or celebratory as he helps to tell the story.

All ornamenting of the sung phrase is tasteful, but still vivid and apt to the inspirations of the musical moment. Shakes, turns, arpeggios, and the like are all used to heighten interpretation, as well as to show off.

The venue is the Paulussaal in Freiburg, which appears to be a medium-sized hall that can accommodate about a thousand people. It gathers and enhances the music, recorded in excellent SACD surround sound. Never flashy are these sonics, but always rich and subtle with atmosphere, tonal color, and tonal detail.

Give a hearty welcome to this one, then. Harmonia Mundi is competing with itself, given the other set also available on this label by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. If you wish an even more overtly operatic take on this most perennial of great English oratorios, Christie and company are a good bet. So far as the SACD competition goes, this set wins, hands down, against the recent highly polished yet under-characterized Harnoncourt performance. (Just my opinion.)

Five stars and counting higher for Rene Jacobs and friends. Bravo, label, and bravo, engineers."
It's OK, but...
Virginia Opera Fan | Falls Church, VA USA | 08/22/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)

"Sorry that I can't muster much enthusiasm for this SACD version of this warhorse. At last count, I have 40 or so CD versions of the piece (not to mention several LP versions that have never made it to CD), so I've done some comparative listening to come to the conclusion this one doesn't measure up to the period instrument competition. It's a shame - the SACD competition is also historically informed but isn't that great with McCreesh's hyperkenetic run through and Harnoncourt's rather Germanic vocal accents take having their own downsides. (My intial enthusiasm for the latter being tempered after repeated listening.) I've spent several months getting to know the Jacobs version before commenting.

The positive stuff first - the chorus sings very well and with character. They are saddled with some irritating interpretive decisions by the conductor - see below. The orchestra is expert.

Jacobs has a definite interpretive viewpoint, but I'm not wholly convinced that he trumps the competition. I am totally unconvinced by his tendency to employ lightened staccato effects some choral climaxes - "For unto us" is the worst. The effect is prissy and mannered. In the HIP area, I prefer Christie, Gardiner, Pinnock, Parrott (EMI, not the later Arabasque Handel/Mozart), and Cleobury.

The soloists, all of whom sing well enough, are outclassed by individual performances in the alternates mentioned above (Lynne Dawson with Cleobury in particular.) I don't much care for Zazzo here, although I have had much more positive impressions of his singing elsewhere.

I don't particularly care for Jacobs use of harp and lute in the orchestra. Frankly, I find it distracting. Speaking of distracting, the organ interlude just before the final choruses is just that, and becomes more and more of an irritation on repeated listening. This is an object lesson on why ornamentation in live performance and recording are different matters altogether. What sounds inspired in performance sounds mannered on repeated hearing.

Finally, the recording itself is something of a "dull pewter" affair - rather like viewing through a scrim. I suppose if you must have the SACD format, this is as good a choice as any, but as a performance, it is substantially outclassed by a number of other recordings. Taste being the individual thing it is, you pay your money and you take your chances."
Well, What Can I Say That Has Not Already Been Said!
Gregory E. Foster | Portland, ME, USA | 07/20/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I find it hard to review this Great recording...It's kind of like having the wind taken out of your sails! SO, I HEARTILY send you to Dan Fee's review below...he's said it all very nicely. Trust us, this is one NECESSARY recording! ~operabruin

*Also note, as it is not available here on Amazon, so it is not possible to review it for everyone's benefit, you MUST check out the John Butt, Original Dublin Version of MESSIAH, on Linn Records. This ALSO is an Absolute Must Recording, and IMHO the finest Messiah available today, bar none!"