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GRAMOPHONE ( 02 / 2018)
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Reviewer: David Vickers

Handel’s exact version of Messiah performed at the Foundling Hospital in May 1754 has been reconstructed for memorable recordings by Hogwood (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 4/80) and McCreesh (DG Archiv, 12/97). Now it is the basis for Hervé Niquet’s reinterpretation – although he makes a few interventions and does not allocate the soprano solos in strict accordance to the 1754 division of duties. At a running time of just under two hours, the quicksilver music-making causes much of the oratorio to skip by briskly without having sufficient rhetorical space and textural depth to guarantee a profound emotional impact – although there are plenty of things to enjoy along the way.

Rupert Charlesworth’s unforced fluency fused with the lightly relaxed orchestra in ‘Ev’ry valley’ is top-notch. Sandrine Piau and the Le Concert Spirituel’s strings integrate solemnity and furore together to striking effect when conveying the refiner’s fire (‘But who may abide’), with vocal embellishments that thrill while never forsaking sense and taste. Niquet’s conducting of key moments such as ‘For unto us a child is born’ have quick momentum and yet are also relaxed and graceful. The trumpets are at an ideal distance in ‘Glory to God’, during which the overriding impression from the excellent choir is the importance of ‘peace on earth’. Katherine Watson’s nonchalant ‘Rejoice greatly’ is sung flawlessly, but the breathless pace of ‘He shall feed his flock’ (shared between Piau and Watson) lacks enough space to convey its consoling message. The opening stages of Part 2 are especially diminished by impatience: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ lacks sufficient gravity for its solemn message, and a rushed ‘He was despised’ severely limits the scope for Anthea Pichanick to mine its sentimental treasures; the manic pace of ‘He trusted in God’ is aligned to eccentric whispered choral singing and feather-like strings. The choral singing in ‘Lift up your heads’ and ‘Let all the angels of God’ is softly compassionate, and the doleful unaccompanied passages in ‘Since by man came death’ are powerfully fulsome. Andreas Wolf’s open-throated proclamation of ‘The trumpet shall sound’ is accompanied by broad bowed strings and Jean-François Madeuf’s regal natural trumpet (Niquet performs only the first section, whereas Handel always performed it in full). There are a few moments of mercurial whimsy, such as convoluted drone bass and pungent oboes punching throughout the Pifa, contrived harpsichord solo embellishments over the closing bars of ‘Glory to God’ and an absurd timpani solo prior to the oratorio’s final cadences. Nevertheless, Niquet’s high-wire interpretation is commendably inquisitive and often surprisingly intimate.


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