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As Nigel Simeone points out in his fine liner notes to David Hill’s recording, Messiah has survived numerous different approaches in its 370 years’ existence: from historically informed accounts recreating the forces used by Handel himself – and these could vary depending on circumstances – to Mozart’s arrangement, to Eugene Goossens’s re-imagined orchestration complete with a percussion section and made famous through Sir Thomas Beecham’s recording. Stian Aareskjold’s arrangement for the Norwegian Wind Ensemble is the latest version of Handel’s indestructible masterpiece, here given its premiere recording.

Having been resistant to the idea of a wind ensemble accompaniment, and that ensemble includes, for example, a soprano saxophone (in ‘O thou that tellest’), I must confess I was entirely won over by Aareskjold’s approach within five minutes. Even that soprano saxophone was extraordinarily beautiful as a concept and in execution. An experienced arranger, Aareskjold has, despite finding new sonorities to illuminate Handel’s music, remained respectful of the composer’s intentions. There’s a nice conceit in using the NWE as the group was founded in 1736, five years before the premiere of Messiah. Their playing is exemplary. The trimmed-down BBC Singers are at their reliable best, relishing every phrase of Handel’s masterpiece. The soloists are all relatively youthful, possessing fresh, bright voices, and enter fully into the spirit of the enterprise. Some of the alternative versions of Handel’s arias are used – for example, the 12/8 account of ‘Rejoice, greatly’ – and the entire performance is steered with his customary authority by David Hill.

The Naxos recording hails from Baltimore, where music director Marin Alsop has enhanced the orchestra’s reputation in recent years. One wishes that conductor Edward Polochick had slimmed down the numbers used on this recording. The professional chorus is generous in size – even if everyone listed in the booklet isn’t singing on the recording, they still sound numerous, especially after having listened to Hill’s recording. And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra also present a heavier texture (especially in the bass) than we have become accustomed to in baroque music, even when played on modern instruments. Nevetheless, they do achieve some impressive results when accommodating Polochick’s fast tempi, but eccentrically so in ‘He trusted in God’ or ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’: both are, frankly, a gabble and feel out of control. The four soloists are perfectly acceptable, though hardly outstanding, but each does engage in some stylish vocal decoration. In the end, however, it’s not really a recording for the library shelf.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica


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