November 30, 2006


Handel: Messiah. Soloists, Academy of Ancient Music and Choir of New College Oxford conducted by Edward Higginbottom. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Handel’s Messiah has been played by orchestras large and small, sung by choruses tiny and huge, cut and pasted every which way, and “improved” in both fascinating ways (by Mozart) and unpleasant ones (by Victorians and post-Victorians).  It had no direct liturgical purpose, but is closest to an Easter oratorio – yet it has become inextricably linked to Christmas season, and this work of profoundly gorgeous choral writing is frequently turned into a sing-along during the winter holidays.  Messiah has, in short, been abused, misused, underused and overused – and, happily, in recent years has been properly used, at least in recorded form, with chorus and orchestra of the right size for the work and soloists able to scale its considerable vocal heights and handle Handel’s formidable ornamentation expectations (many of the vocal displays were originally supposed to be improvised during performance).

     Yet never, until this new Naxos recording, has Messiah been heard in the form in which Handel himself directed it in London in April and May of 1751.  For that year’s London performances, Handel used boys’ voices rather than adults’ – not only in the chorus but also for all the high arias.  Given the difficulty of finding adult singers who can manage this work, the task of finding young boys who can do so would seem well-nigh impossible.  But Edward Higginbottom has succeeded.  Yes, there are the requisite adult voices for the lower parts – tenor Toby Spence and bass Eamonn Dougan – and there is, for the alto arias, a fine countertenor (Iestyn Davies).  But the highest voices, the trebles, belong to three boys who are obviously well schooled in the British chapel choir tradition: Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones and Robert Brooks.  There is an openness and refreshing naïveté to the boys’ singing that provides a level of clarity and joy often missing when adults sing these roles – much as the use of a boy in the final movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (an approach favored by Leonard Bernstein) gives added poignancy and lightness to that movement’s song of heavenly life.

     In Messiah, the tale is of earthly life on the verge of becoming heavenly, and the boys’ light voices fit the story perfectly.  It is easy to find minor points of intonation or ornamentation with which to quibble, but they are minor points: these boys have learned the music well, they sing it with feeling, and their sound actually provides something quite rare these days – a Messiah that truly seems different from all the others.

     The boys’ singing alone would not be enough to make this recording a success, of course; but happily, the other soloists, chorus and Academy of Ancient Music are all top-notch, playing at lively tempos that communicate the joy of the entire Messiah story while reserving plenty of seriousness for times when it is required – but without letting anything drag.  Yes, this recording is a curiosity, but so were Handel’s 1751 performances (no one knows why he used trebles for the arias at that time).  What is important is that this is not just a curiosity: it is a fine presentation of Messiah, well played and well sung, and entirely worthwhile on its own terms.

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