Handel: Messiah [Highlights]by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
This album of highlights from George Frederick Handel's "Messiah" presents the best-known instrumentals, arias, and choruses from this hallowed work on 19 tracks, performed in Baroque period style by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus Wien, led by the redoubtable Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Crisp rhythms, distinctive tone colors, and lean textures are in evidence throughout, and the luster of original instruments makes these selections feel light and transparent, as opposed to the thicker textures and flatter sonorities of older, traditional (i.e., post-Romantic) readings. Harnoncourt, of course, was from the outset one of the leaders of the movement for authentic period practices and key in sweeping the cobwebs off the great masterpieces of early music; this 2004 recording of "Messiah" is quite far removed from the stodgy, overly reverent readings that persisted well into the late twentieth century, but are becoming scarce in the early twenty first. Where one may question this performance is chiefly in the solo singing, which is at times almost too expressive and stylized, bordering on preciosity: tenor Michael Schade is so intent on shading each syllable, the musical line seems secondary, and the singing of soprano Christine Schäfer, alto Anna Larsson, and bass Gerald Finley seems similarly affected, though to a lesser degree. The choruses are much less rarefied and easier to follow, though sometimes Harnoncourt takes tempos too slowly, troublingly in "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," but almost fatally in "Hallelujah," so listeners who like their "Messiah" at a brisk clip may find these interpretations sluggish. Before purchasing the full recording, listeners would be wise to sample this disc first to see if the interpretation satisfies their needs and if the performance suits their tastes.
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