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Crowe; Mead, Staples, Purves; Chorus and Orchestra of Le Concert D’Astrée, Haïm. English texts with translations. Erato 0825646240555
Emmanuelle Haïm’s new recording of Handel’s Messiah captures just the right tone of contemplation for this non-theatrical work. Unlike Handel’s other oratorios that feature named characters and celebrations of national triumphs, Messiah is not so much a drama as a meditation on the connection between God and man. Part One uses Old Testament words to anticipate the coming of the Messiah, while Part Two reflects on His humanity and work on earth. Part Three muses on the promise of eternal life as a result of God’s love and the sacrifice of His Son.
From the first notes of the overture, Haïm sets a tone of nobility and gravity, bringing quiet energy to the ensuing fugal allegro. At times the reading doesn’t even feel like a performance, but rather a reverent communal experience, with natural and effective text declamation, modest tempo choices and a complete lack of showy theatricality. Soloists utter eloquently and keep ornamentation inventive and fresh, but restrained in effect.
Bright-voiced tenor Andrew Staples sets the tone for the vocal soloists with his recitative, “Comfort ye,” which actually sounds comforting rather than startling. He trips joyfully through the coloratura of “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” having fun with contrasting ornaments for the adjectives in the phrase, “and the rough places plain.” If he underplays the rhetorical tone of the Part Two sequence describing the isolation and sorrow of Jesus in his final days, Staples makes up for it with a firmly voiced “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”
Lucy Crowe brings stylish authority and a gorgeous trill to the soprano arias, but sounds generally detached and uninterested. Countertenor Tim Mead sounds lovely, but shows some carelessness in pronunciation, often slamming final unaccented syllables, and more than once pronouncing “fire” as “fi-yur.” His overly clever ornaments in “He was despised” are outdone by an especially expressive bassline, and like Crowe, he sounds bland and unengaged with the text.
Bass Christopher Purves uses his spectacular range to good effect, singing lightly and easily on top, especially in the central section of “The Trumpet shall Sound,” and bringing linguistic and vocal authority to every phrase. (But did this otherwise exemplary singer mistakenly say “the shadows of death”?)
In spite of its few imperfections, Haïm’s intimate reading is captivating, and is highly recommended as a refreshing and satisfying look at this often-heard masterpiece.
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