Review: Handel Messiah – The Choruses

Under the astute direction of Frieder Bernius, these lively and assured performances from the Kammerchor Stuttgart and the Barockorchester Stuttgart capture the spontaneity and sheer delight of Handel’s best-loved work.

Handel’s timeless masterpiece Messiah is one of those supremely joyous works that you never tire of hearing. And if like me you already have several recordings, this splendid account is one that you will want to return to again and again.

Since its first performance in Dublin in 1742, there has been a tradition to emphasise the grandeur of Messiah with massed choirs, culminating with the Victorian tradition of some 4,000 performers at London’s Crystal Palace. Even today, large scale performances with around 500 singers are popular for choirs and audiences alike (especially “sing along” Messiah for amateur choirs).

The conductor Frieder Bernius assembles much more modest forces for this recording  (around 30 singers) and the result is a revelation. With brisk tempos, a nimble choir and a fine attention to detail, it’s a performance which never sounds mannered or lightweight and radiates the supreme confidence and majesty of Handel’s masterpiece.

The choir deserve special praise for their balanced ensemble singing, clear articulation and thrilling cadences. It is easy to forget quite how challenging it can be to sing in English; there are pesky vowel sounds, stray sibilants, closing consonants, not to mention where place the emphasis (and Handel doesn’t always help with his idiosyncratic settings of the texts). So “Prince of Peace” can sound like “Prince of peas”, “Good will” can sound like “Good wheel” and so on. The choir seem to shrug off these difficulties with aplomb. Particularly impressive is the effortless way they perform the athletic, His Yoke is Easy. Handel had originally composed this in 1741 as the virtuosic soprano duet Quel fior che all’alba ride, but the choir sound completely at ease in Handel’s reworking with their voices soaring ever upward.

Frieder Bernius’s direction is admirably balanced, earnest and satisfying throughout without edginess or bombast. While some might miss a heightened sense of drama in Surely, He hath bourne our griefs,  the famous Hallelujah chorus is still gripping, and the atmosphere and control in Behold the Lamb of God and Since by Man is matchless.

The sound quality is balanced, warm and spacious with the occasional loss of clarity with the inner voices but it always sounds compelling. These are performances to savour.

Performance: 5 stars
Recording: 4 stars

Kevin Painting

Published 27 March 2016 on primephonic

Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius (conductor)
Carus CARCarus83.475