Daily Telegraph Review: Messiah CD

Rupert Christiansen, Daily Telegraph

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, Chandos.

5 stars

Over the past half-century, the ethos of authenticity has dominated the performance of baroque music, leading to an emphasis on the restitution of original orchestration and the use of small instrumental and vocal forces as well as the addition of ornamentation to the written vocal lines. Yet after so many great recordings by the likes of Colin Davis, Charles Mackerras, Trevor Pinnock and John Eliot Gardiner, this scholarly approach has become the orthodoxy, and it is therefore oddly refreshing to encounter this defiantly retrograde interpretation, using a modern symphony orchestra, operatic voices and massed choir.

The result could so easily have been elephantine in a bad sense, but such is the quality and commitment of all those involved that it sings and dances. The conductor Andrew Davis clearly has this score in his bones – significantly, he dedicates the recording to the memory of his mother and father, from whom one assumes he first imbibed it -and the performance (recorded live in Toronto last December) has an unfailingly lyrical flow and dramatic immediacy that communicates nothing but pure love, faith and joy – the genuine Handelian spirit.

Davis has devised his own edition, drawing on the Victorian and Edwardian versions by Ebenezer Prout and Eugene Goossens to create a range of colours and textures (including the sound of a marimba and other modern percussion) of which Handel would never have dreamt. For some purist tastes, the effect will be too lush, too vivid and soft-centred, but on its own terms, it has an aesthetic integrity that the composer would surely have appreciated.

“For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “All We Like Sheep” are highlights, sung by the superb 150-strong Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with a fugal exhilaration that doesn’t preclude exemplary diction and precision. They are the stars of the show, but all four soloists are excellent too. Erin Wall is chastely radiant in “How Beautiful Are the Feet” and Elizabeth DeShong gravely consolatory in “He Was Despised”. Andrew Staples brings charm to “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” and John Relya attaches “Wy Do the Nations Rage?” with splendid fury.

Whatever one thinks of the musicological principles that underlie it, this is a performance of Messiah that deserves to rank in the catalogue with the very finest.

Appeared in the print version of the London Daily Telegraph, December 10, 2016.