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Reviews: Handel: Messiah - McCreesh

Reviews: 4

Review by beardawgs September 4, 2004 (6 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
At first I wondered what can be done to improve 48kHz recording, especially one (presumably) made in stereo. What ever Emil Berliner Studios did, sound image on this SACD is surprisingly wide and open (in MC), even if there isn’t much coming from behind, but it sounds right. Choral numbers are particularly impressive and all the rest is placed where it should be. Some depth of the sound stage is of course missing, but what I like about this incarnation is that it proves that even 48kHz recording can sound better when transferred to SACD.

The performance is a different matter all together. DG had high hopes for this “Messiah for the Millennium”, but it wasn’t to be. It is still very enjoyable and to be honest, I like it more now than 3 years ago, when luckily I didn’t buy the RBCD. My main problem with McCreesh’s conducting is his inconsistent tempi, some choral numbers are far too fast and some slow music is dragging. Fine group of soloist it let down by wobbly Bernarda Fink’s alto, especially annoying in “O thou that tallest good tidings to Zion” (and at what speed!). Her phrasing and English pronunciation are doggy to say the least. Shame, as she has some of the most beautiful and intimate music to sing. McCreesh also shifts to often between operatic and less theatrical approach, which leaves the whole listening experience a rather uneven one. But, there are some wonderful and truly magic moments in it as well.

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Review by Mozart November 7, 2004 (3 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I must partly disagree with the previous review. A few years ago I read all the stuff about this version being just satisfactory but in no means the "millenium version". So, though I have always had a very good opinion of the Grabieli Consort and Players, mainly for their reconstruction of Spanish poliphony, I did not purchase this version. I have now (in SACD), and I must say that I feel as if I were 4 years late. This versíon is superb both in artistic and sonic terms. I will not go into the details of the performance, but would rather talk of its overall effect, which is one of enormous musicianship and grandeur, with superb voices surrounding you and inviting to think in the message of the work. The sound is superb in SACD, but it is as well in CD when played in a good stereo equipment. It is only that in the last case the three dimensional effect is lost. All in all, this version now ranks on the top of my Messiah list, with preference to my previous top version by Christopher Hogwood for L'Oiseau Lyre.

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Review by tream December 6, 2004 (5 of 9 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Handel's Messiah is one of the great monuments of Western art, ranking with Beethoven's Ninth, Bach St. Matthew's Passion, The Marriage of Figaro, etc. as an absolute cornerstone of our musical culture. At this time of year (December) performances of Messiah are commonplace, even though the text is really more appropriate for Easter. There is something about the first solo "Comfort Ye/Every Valley" followed by the first chorus "And the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed" that is immediately appealing and implies the promise of the birth of Jesus, even though the third part of Messiah is really about resurrection. Anyway, and this is a digression, Messiah is well more appropriate for Christmas than another traditional work, Hansel und Gretel, which really ought to be played at Halloween!
McCreesh's approach to Messiah is, in a word, theatrical. His essay in the booklet stresses his own experience conducting Handel's theater works and his view that Messiah is of a piece with Handel's other works. Practically speaking, this means wider extremes of tempos than others take in Messiah-the opening numbers are quite slow, for example, while other numbers (O, thou that tellest good Tidings to Zion) are much faster than the norm. I also believe theater is manifested in McCreesh's choice of version, which is the 1754 Foundling Hospital version-more below, but this means that several of the variants are the short versions, emphasizing forward progress rather than lingering, perhaps, over beautiful moments at the sake of drama.
The singers as a group are fine enough, without leaving a strong individual impression. Contralo Bernarda Fink has come in from some criticism in many quarters, as she has a voice with a quick vibrato that doesn't allow her to open up at McCreesh's tempos in faster numbers. I do think she puts "He was despised" across well, perhaps the most difficult number in all of Messiah-long, repetitive, potentially boring, yet crucial.
Overall, I think the performance works really well. However, and this is a big however, for me the choice of version means that it would never be my desert island choice for Messiah. There are many variants of Messiah, and performers either choose to replicate a particular performance when choosing among editions, or they pick and choose their favorite variants (that's what I would do, and I believe Handel the practical musician would approve heartily). This particular version, the Foundling Hospital version of 1754, uses the short version of the Pifa (OK, but you lose some really outstanding music) but worse, the short version of "Why do the nations"-the great number for bass, which, in this version, becomes recitative at the point of "The kings of the earth cry out"-one of Handel's great utterances in the long version and to me, a disfigurement that automatically disqualifies any recording that uses the short version as a potential first choice (Hogwood uses this as well-I was shocked when I heard Hogwood perform Messiah live when it came to this part-this was my first exposure to this version). I know that the counter is that the drama of this part, which culminates in the Hallelujan chorus, is better served with this version, but I don't buy the argument. Listen to both versions and decide for yourself.
Sound-pretty good but a little disembodied in a way I attribute to the use of PCM - I found the same thing in the Chailly La Boheme. I listened to this in surround sound.
Recommendations-yes, I can recommend this as your second Messiah, if you already have a non-Foundling Hospital version. I don't know the other Messiah on SACD, but on RBCD I can recommend Gardiner (I wish he had chosed female altos instead of countertenors, but that's about the only blemish), Christie, and, for a non-HIP, Davis I, which frankly is a heck of a performance that costs next to nothing. The McGegan recording is notable for completeness-all of the different variants are included, and there are many beyond the two I mentioned above, but I don't find myself playing it very often. I disliked Hogwood's way with Messiah when I heard it live, so have passed on the recording. Others have felt differently. Suzuki on Bis has received good reviews from reviewers I respect as well, although I have not heard it.

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Review by Allen August 21, 2010 (4 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
After many version of Messiah, I finally bought this SA-CD version from Taiwan (where else this becomes an expensive OOP item).

I should say that I had a high hope for this version, but it was just a wishful thing. This is not the Messiah for me - which means perfecto chorus and solos, with magnificent music fireworks. But this SA-CD provides none of these.

The weakest link is actually the soloist's vocal: solo singing is really challenged in many places. Of course, I would not expect a Joan Sutherland or Te Kanawa for the coloratura part, but the constrained vocal in "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Sion" is the worst I have ever heard in a major commercial recording.

The orchestra is relative small in scale. It is probably really what early music ensemble is all about, though when comparing with Rene Jabobs' Messiah SA-CD, it indeed sounds like an early music ensemble can also sound big.

The brightest spot in the whole performance is actually in the chorus, which is so much in harmony, just as what it should be. But even at this point, the chorus is also small in scale: there is really few fireworks in Hallelujah!

Sonic wise, all 5 channels are used, the center center channel really stands out. The sound field is broad and deep comparing with most of the RBCD performance. The broad sonic field really helps in many of the chorus performance.

In conclusion, this performance is flat one, fine in chorus section, but seriously lacking the magic in some famous solo performance with constrained voices. If it is your first Messiah, go to get RBCD version of other performance.

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