Harnoncourt’s Messiah

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s new Messiah recording is, above all, a performance that is unencumbered by the massive weight of history. Of all Handel’s oratorios, Messiah is so frequently performed (at so many differing standards) that there can almost be no such thing as a ‘fresh’ recording of the piece.

Cantillation (under Antony Walker) came close (ish) in their 2002 recording, but failed in their attempts to create a genuinely new sound. The job they began in that recording has been finished in this one, which manages to make Messiah sound new, exciting, and engaging beyond all expectations.

The sound is sparse, but perfectly balanced, with a glowing string section—particularly the lower strings. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor is a delight to listen to, and carry off Handel’s more difficult choruses with aplomb.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Harnoncourt’s interpretation is his choice of tempi. Happy to alter speeds within individual numbers (and within phrases), this gives the performance drive, and highlights the emotional acceleration of several choruses. Most notable among these is the ‘Hallelujah!’ chorus, here begun softly and slowly, building inexorably in both volume and speed to the climax.

Similarly, the line “to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” takes on a much more rhetorical tone as its tempo increases, freed from the recitational tone imposed by strict observance of bar-lines.

Of the soloists, baritone Gerald Finley deserves special mention. His voice is effortlessly controlled throughout, with excellent diction and clarity. His recitatives in the first part (especially For behold, darkness shall cover the earth) are particularly fine.

Fans of the lush, Victorian tradition will not find much to like in this recording. There have been a number of innovative Messiah recordings in the recent past (including Paul McCreesh’s) but none have been able to throw off the mantle of tradition as well—and as effectively—as Harnoncourt’s. Even if you already own a treasured Messiah, this is definitely one to add to the collection.

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conductor; Christine Schäfer, Anna Larsson, Michael Schade, Gerald Finley soloists; Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Chor.