Handel: Messiah (CD Review - BBC Music Magazine, 2013)
Building a Library: Handel Messiah
THE BEST RECORDING: STEPHEN LAYTON
Stephen Layton's musicians bring an unparalleled freshness to this familiar work, combining power with a delicacy faithful to Handel's Baroque sensibility. The music Handel composed for Messiah is meant to convince audiences of a vision beyond religious factionalism, and Layton rightly shapes his reading around the oratorio's berses. Every phrase, whether played or sung, is suffused with word-meaning. Momentum builds throughout the work, thanks to the excellent musicianship of choir, conductor, instrumentalists and soloists alike. The choir's responsiveness, the Britten Sinfonia's airy ensemble, the fluidity of Layton's tempos and the musical imagination of the soloists deftly nuance a score forged from Messiah's 1750 version and some later variants. Modern instruments are made to sound like period instruments, with the players adopting a Baroque clarity, nimbleness and ingenuity of extemporisation. Gorgeous instrumental solos abound. Violinist Jacqueline Shave's obbligato lines are particularly delightful, delivered with such sweet vulnerability to make the same passages on rival discs seem clunky. Similarly, while larger than the choirs Handel directed, Polyphony retains the transparency needed to portray Handel's elaborate counterpoint, which culminates in the final 'Amen'. This Messiah not only captures the heart, but ravishes the ear.