Which Messiah? It's not a theological question; it's a question about what to listen to when hanging the tinsel. No piece of music is so linked with Christmas as Handel's great oratorio, and there are lots of choices (I stopped counting the Amazon list at one hundred). There are two recordings by Robert Shaw. Many people see his 1966 recording as the standard against which all Messiahs are to be judged but his later recording with the Atlanta Symphony features the ethereal singing of the American soprano Sylvia McNair. It's worth listening to for her alone.
Two recordings are particularly admired by enthusiasts of "authentic" Baroque performances (meaning frisky tempi, smallish ensembles, thin-toned violins, and frequently male altos). Trevor Pinnock has a recording with the English Concert and Martin Pearlman with the Boston Baroque. Both are excellent, although I prefer Pinnock's, since, to my taste, the Boston group's performance is so "light" that it ultimately trivializes the work.
Baron Gottfried van Swieten was an early enthusiast of Handel and he commissioned Mozart to arrange Messiah for current Viennese tastes. Mozart's version (which is the one must often heard in church performanceslook at the orchestra, if you see clarinets, they are playing the Mozart) is represented by two fine performances conducted by Charles Mackerras (although, sadly, the version in German with the tenor Peter Shreier on the Archiv label is no longer available). Mackerras also has a splendid recording of the Handel original on EMI classics.
And if you're not concerned about falling off the ladder while hanging that tinsel, you can watch Messiah on DVD. Nevil Marriner has a performance celebrating the oratorio's 250th anniversary.
Two other performances are enhanced by Anglican acoustics: Christopher Hogwood's, filmed at Westminster Abbey, and Stephen Cleobury's, filmed at the chapel of King's College in Cambridge.
But my favorite Messiah is Thomas Beecham's 1959 recording of Eugene Goossens' orchestration.
It's a pure nightmare. Goossens adds trombones, tubas, harp, expanded winds, and full percussion. Beecham quickens and stretches tempi in ways that give musicologists hives. Many people hate it (and hate folks who like it!), but it's somehow splendidly Handelian, and to hear Jon Vickers sing the tenor arias is a revelation.
Buy the other recordingsbut buy this one too.
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.
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