Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New College’s Messiah

Longtime readers may remember I got to hear the New College Choir twice on my England pilgrimage a year ago, at New College Chapel and at Christ Church Spitalfields. So when I heard that they had a new recording out of Messiah . . . with treble soloists . . . recorded shortly after my visit . . . well, I bought that right up.

And all fans of Handel’s Messiah may want to do the same. For this is the only modern account of Handel’s 1751 London performances, in which, among other things, he used boy trebles instead of female sopranos for soloists. I’ve known for some time that Handel conducted Messiah this way. And I wondered when the hey would someone record it that way. Finally someone has.

And the solos are a definite improvement over the usual performance. Virtually all recordings of Messiah use solo voices that are IMHO overly operatic, often to the point of being tedious. The solos in this new CD, especially the treble solos, do not have that shortcoming and are much more engaging. I can say these are by far the best Messiah solos I’ve ever heard.

And, yes, one of the treble soloists is the boy whose voice impressed me on my visit. I believe he's Robert Brooks.

Now I’m not as impressed with the choruses. They are excellent, of course, but almost discordant at times. Perhaps, the mikes were misplaced. It’s a matter of taste I’m sure, but the choruses in King’s College’s 1994 version are superior I think (although the solos in the New College CD are better as I said).

Also be aware that in efforts to be authentic, the performance is at a faster pace than the usual. Sometimes, it seems they are in a hurry. If you prefer a slower deliberate dramatic pace, that may be off-putting. Personally, I liked it once I got used to it. And the pace often has an urgent, sometimes joyous quality that’s appropriate.

In any case, this new New College CD is probably the most authentic version of Messiah out there. And the solos are a cut above any other version I’ve heard. So any lover of Messiah will find this CD worthwhile, even if it doesn’t become their favorite version. (FWIW, I’m not sure which is my favorite version yet.)

By the way, a note from the CD booklet: “The use of a castrato for the alto arias was neither a part of this tradition nor an option for our own time.”

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