Georg Friedrich Handel – Messiah
with Christine Schäfer, soprano; Anna Larsson, alto; Michael Schade, tenor; Gerald Finley, bass
Herbert Tachezi, organ and cello; Stefan Gottfried, harpsichord
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Artistic Direction: Erwin Ortner
Concentus Musicus Wien
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 2005
In this inconsistent and confused world, it is possible that a person has never heard of the most famous oratorio composed by Georg Friedrich Handel, the Messiah, but probably everybody is acquainted with the universally known chorus Hallelujah, a piece that aroused enthusiasm even in Handel himself who, after he finished to write it, thought that «I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with his Company of Angels», an experience similar to that lived by Dante in the last canto of the Paradiso.
Handel wrote the Messiah on a libretto by Charles Jennens in just four weeks, from 22nd August to 14th September 1741. The first performance took place in Dublin on 13th April 1742 and the second followed shortly after, on 3rd June, for the benefit of the local charities. The reception at the London premiere (on 23rd March 1743) was mixed and the Universal Spectator was rather sceptical about the oratorio, not for its music, but for the singing of Scripture in the theatre, but from 1749 onwards Messiah was regularly performed and highly appreciated.
The present, live recorded Messiah is not the first for Nikolaus Harnoncourt as thirty years before it the Teldec label released another one, featuring Elizabeth Gale, Marjana Lipovsek, Werner Hollweg, and Roderick Kennedy as soloists, the Stockholm Kammerkören and the Concentus Musicus Wien. The “new” Messiah was recorded at the Musikverein in Vienna in December 2004 with Christine Schäfer, Anna Larsson, Michael Schade and Gerald Finley as soloists, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and the same Concentus Musicus Wien and it is as remarkable as the first.
To begin, Harnoncourt is superlative, as usual. The booklet offers a reproduction of the maestro’s schematic division of the oratorio and few notes in which he points out some passages in which Handel’s autograph score differs from the tradition, but no further explication has been made in the following essay (valuable, of course, but centred on a different subject) and the reader who is going to become listener knows just little more than before about Harnoncourt’s ideas.
Luckily, the conductor’s performance explains his intentions with the same clarity of a good essay, but, thanks to the power of music, in a more pleasing way. If I had to summarize this Messiah with one word, that word would be joy. It does not matter which part of the Messiah you are listening to, it does not matter if it is one of the arias or choruses from the part that, in the aforementioned Harnoncourt’s notes, goes under the title “Announcement and Plan for Redemption by the Messiah”, or if it is the most perfect expression of bliss and faith, the Hallelujah, because the same assurance of salvation is implicit and yet omnipresent in the conductor’s mind and faithfully transposed in music.
From this viewpoint, there is little surprise that Harnoncourt’s Messiah is a hymn of joy, because for a believer this is the only possible consequence. The wise, extensive use of the orchestral palette allows Harnoncourt to reach his goal with great suggestion and the colours are appropriately bright.
Anyway, the most perfect expression of the confident, joyful feeling seems to be more freely expressed in the choruses, performed with celestial and well trained voices by the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, while other feelings are added to the dominant one in the arias. There, the four excellent soloists add their strong and different personalities: soprano Christine Schäfer makes perfect use of her velvety and suave voice, Anna Larsson is a dark, rich alto remarkable for smoothness and elegance, tenor Michael Schade is a little impulsive at the beginning, but always expressive, and finally bass Gerald Finley has an authoritative and vigorous voice.
There is no doubt that Harnoncourt offers here a fresh rendition of Handel’s Messiah and gives to this frequently performed – and therefore subject to deterioration – work a new and original character.