Thursday, December 11, 2008

HANDEL: Messiah - Karl Richter, London Philharmonic

Just came out yesterday. Remember that I always write to/about students.


Album: HANDEL: Messiah

Artist(s): Karl Richter, London Philharmonic Orchestra,
John Alldis Choir, Donald Macintyre, Stuart Burrows, Helen Donath, Anna Reynolds

One of the most honored holiday traditions of Anglo culture is performances of Handel’s Messiah. Most of us have attended at least one in our lives—we even have a biannual performance here at Elmhurst College that is always quite respectably done and is a standing recommendation. Nevertheless, experience strangely reveals that too few actually own a copy of Messiah on disc.

It therefore seems appropriate to highlight recommend this present performance of Karl Richter’s, which stands firmly in the Romantic Messiah tradition preserved through the last century. Unlike most modern recordings, this Messiah utilizes a full orchestra, large chorus, and operatic soloists who do no ornamentation. To the “period performance” type, this doubtless sounds horrific, but the fact of the matter is that this performance is one of recorded music’s best kept secrets, unfairly relegated to obscurity.

Richter’s conducting confirms his status as the then-reigning Bach expert—squarely Germanic, displaying broad, stately tempi and a good sense of baroque rhythm. The opening overture is vested with weight and great seriousness, but doesn’t drag—you may miss the double-dotting often read into the score if that’s what you’re used to, but the more traditional approach succeeds very well on its own terms. In particular the “Pastoral Symphony” is very pretty and lovingly phrased. The sound he draws from the orchestra is bit relaxed and mellow (the strings sound almost lazy in places), but very deep and appropriate to his stately conception.

Richter’s approach is well served by the John Alldis Choir, whose mature sound and admirable precision are on full display throughout. The lengthy melismas of “And He Shall Purify” sound quite comfortable for the ensemble and Richter’s dynamic changes are very well judged. “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “Hallelujah” both capture the necessary joy and grandeur of the words. Perhaps the only misfire is “Behold the Lamb God,” where the absence of double dotting inhibits the dramatic punch of the music.

The soloists are all rock solid vocally and are all native English speakers, delivering satisfying renditions of all the works solo “highlights.” Helen Donath and Anna Reynolds both consistently perform capably and musically, Donath notable for her sweet, even timbre. Donald Macintyre’s Wagnerian bass-baritone is sonorous, powerful, and delivers his solo pieces with suitable majesty and control. Most refreshingly, he also sings “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,” eschewing the inferior practice of giving this aria to the alto. But the tenor is the real standout here—in Stuart Barrows we have a consummate oratorio tenor, warm and bright, at once both gentlemanly and heroic. His performances of “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley” are darn near perfect, elegant and sincere in the recitative, breezy and cheerful in the aria. And he is equally capable in “Thou Shalt Break Them,” correctly conveying the anger of the text with through both color and his explosive high notes.

In all, this performance produces a most singular and valuable quality: a feeling of timelessness, perfectly capturing the eternal nature of both the music and its subject matter. The album is definitely worth owning, and its relative obscurity makes it a fairly cheap proposition (around $8 on Amazon at the time of writing). If you don’t already Messiah, get this one.

Rating: A

BACH: "Ich Habe Genug"; BRAHMS: Lieder - Hans Hotter et al

Published...a few weeks ago.

Album: BACH: Cantata No. 82 "Ich Habe Genug"; BRAHMS: Vier erste Ges änge; 12 Lieder

Artist(s): Hans Hotter, Anthony Bernard, Geraint Jones, Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Gerald Moore

Traditionally, the best trained, most powerful, and most beautiful voices have favored the opera house, with interpretation taking a backseat to impressive vocalism. In contrast, less talented singers tend to favor the art song, committing all sorts of vocal immoralities in the name of “artistry.” And then there are the “period performance” twits, who can do most any ugly, scratchy thing so long as the academics agree.

It is a supreme pleasure, then, when vocalism at the very highest level is combined with the emotive qualities of the art song or the formal structures of baroque and renaissance music. Such is the case here.

Hans Hotter possessed a dark, majestic, distinctly Germanic bass-baritone. His was the thunderous voice of gods and kings, perfectly suited to the great Wagner roles for which he was known. It is strange, then, to think of him in the humble religious trappings of Bach, or the intimate world of German lieder. Yet, he was perhaps one of the most insightful interpreters of the last century, known for performances of great sincerity and feeling.

The present album, recorded when the Hotter was in his prime, exemplifies his vocal and interpretive powers. Bach’s Ich Habe Genug, in which the Christian protagonist expresses his distaste towards life and longs for Jesus, is given perhaps its most affecting treatment on record. To hear an instrument of such majesty in Bach is simply wonderful, and Hotter captures the cantata’s essence from the very first aria—he colors his powerful voice with complete humility, like a great man crushed by his cares. His phrasing displays a sensitive use of rubato, maintaining legato and the integrity of the vocal line while making each phrase ache with weariness. Similarly, the second aria is very legato, with Hotter lightening and warming his voice to create a vision of heavenly rest. And he throws himself into the difficult runs of third aria most impressively, his wish for death stated with just the right balance of aggression and desperation.

Brahm’s biblical Four Serious Songs are just that—there are four of them and they are very, very serious, except for the last one which is actually kind of cheery in parts. The insightful, cynical commentary of the three texts is given appropriately funereal treatment, and Hotter thunders nicely when the words call for it. The fourth song—in which Paul exhorts the Corinthians to practice charity—is very warm and strikingly sincere throughout.

The 12 lieder rounding off the album are a little more of a mixed bag. Most listeners are used to ignoring the character deficiencies of individual timbres, but at times, the sentimental poetry sounds just a bit odd in the voice of Wotan. Still, each song is interpreted expertly, and there is much here to please even the most critical ear. Feldeinsamkeit dreamily draws out Brahms’ Elysium-like world without ever languishing. Sappische Ode is very sweet, very devoted, and very beautifully phrased. Ständchen displays Hotter at his lightest and most charming. And of course, the more dramatic songs fare very well, particularly Verrat, in which the protagonist’s bitter sarcasm may be felt keenly.

Hotter’s collaborators are a pleasure throughout, the Philharmonia Orchestra supporting with a nice feeling of pathos in the Bach and Gerald Moore delivering his typically perfect accompaniments in the Brahms. The recorded sound varies, a little grey and grainy in the cantata (which strangely adds to the mood), but fairly clear in the lieder.

The Bach alone is worth the price of admission on this album, and the Brahms is almost as good. Indispensable for fans of either composer, particularly if you feel starved for fine voices in this repertoire. It’s selling at mid price, too.