Sir John Eliot Gardiner's triumphant period instrument version can be confidently mentioned in the same breath with any of the great "Messiah" recordings of the past. In fact, in many ways it is the most completely satisfying "Messiah" ever released. Using the reduced performing forces and older instruments that are common to almost every "Messiah" recording of the last couple of decades, Gardiner nevertheless projects almost all of the oratorio's size and significance in a performance that is still very intimate in its physical dimensions and sound. The soloists are all intelligent and musical; the chorus (for which Gardiner wisely opted for female sopranos instead of the more "authentic" boys' voices) sings with joy and devotion; and the English Baroque Soloists play with great precision and high-minded intensity, while giving the unmistakable impression that they're having an enormous amount of fun. While nothing could ever make me part with my well-worn recordings by Beecham and Mackerras, Gardiner's exultant performance now joins that select circle of "Messiahs" I cannot do without.