Handel’s Messiah – Sir Andrew Davis


Sir Andrew Davis claims that for this new concert edition, he wanted to do a ‘grand’ version, and sought to “keep Handel’s notes, harmonies and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra”. This goal is achieved, with an overall ‘bright’ feel that is vital, fresh and exuberant, but not overcooked.

The tenor (Andrew Staples) is phrased in beautiful cohesion with the orchestra, whose own performance is executed with enviable subtlety. The sense of space, especially in the brass and woodwinds, makes everything nestle quite snugly. The choir is well balanced and not overly fore-fronted. Track 7 is a choral showpiece and contrasts with an almost underpowered organ – although by the end, the instrumental balance makes a lot more sense.

There are moments of pure joy (track 9), which more than justify the occasional crashing volume peak. The themes are woven to give a sense of temporal as well as spatial presence. Track 12 is deeply celebratory, and the unusual string arrangement exudes confident assurance.
Quiet sections (track 10) convey bristling expectation and these more pastoral moments are notable for their simplicity in comparison to the more dominant ‘cosmopolitan’ sections.

Disc 2 projects a more sombre tone. The full chorus is in action here; various registers swimming around one another menacingly. The funereal pace is not too far from Purcell, and the overall sense is a return to more conservative styling. This bleak grandiosity continues in track three, although the pace becomes more urgent. Things seem a bit Russian here and some humour is present in the ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’. Transitions from light-heartedness to sombreness are seamless and ‘Sheep’ ends on an unexpectedly beautiful cadence.

There is a slightly bipolar mood; ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’ is quickly followed by a strangely whimsical journey through a description of suffering, in which the lyrical content doesn’t seem to match the musical expression. But we soon return to woven melodies, with an overall complex and celebratory tone. I wish Davies would make more use of the organ, but he claims to have reserved it only for the climactic moments. It became a little lost to my ears, which is a shame.

Handel is a master of galloping violins and the bass (John Relyea) counteracts the strings with a powerful but controlled vibrato. It’s a breath taking romp, giving way swiftly to a more angular, spiky choral piece. By track 17, the violence escalates, reminding the listener of the gory narrative, which might easily be forgotten amid such refined arrangements. Of course, all the pomp has been saved up for the Hallelujah! Chorus. The highs are ecstatic and the architecture of the piece certainly draws one’s eyes towards the heavens. I’m not religious, but tracks like this certainly justify all the liturgical stuff.

What follows is refreshing by comparison, but seems a little superfluous. The final tracks bring many of the earlier themes into play. There is grandiosity in these closing pieces, but some listeners might be tired by this point. We end, finally, on a massive crescendo – as the choir stops to take a breath before this final note, you almost find yourself reaching for the volume dial in anticipation. The thing ends on a bang, reminding us where we’ve been and perhaps where we’re going.

Andrew Fletcher

Andrew Fletcher

My name is Fletch. My favourite films are Fletch and Fletch Lives. But this is a music blog, so my favourite musician is Andrew Fletcher from Depeche Mode, or Andrew Fletcher, the Birmingham-based composer/arranger. When I'm not writing classical music reviews, I like to hide in boxes, wear shoes, use long words and lark about. In real life, I'm a researcher at 'the other' university in Newcastle. The research is about music. Turns out it's good for you.
Andrew Fletcher

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