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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, May 2011

It is Christmas as I am writing this, but perhaps near Easter as you are reading it. My guess is that this Messiah has been available, in one form or another, ever since it was released by Decca as a set of three LP records in late 1961. (Most recently, it was reissued on one of the label’s mid-priced CD lines, either Ovation or Jubilee, depending on which country you bought it in.) This was Boult’s second Messiah. The first, also for Decca, dates from 1954, and has yet to be reissued on CD. I found a used copy of it a few months ago, and with a little reconstructive care was able to enjoy quite a good performance. Sir Adrian seldom disappointed.

In both of his recordings, Boult used an edition of the score by Julian Herbage, who was one of the first—if not the first—scholars to restore Handel’s music more or less to its original state, free from the Victorian-style encrustations of Ebenezer Prout and his ilk. Herbage created a performing edition in 1935. It was temporarily lost, and I believe what Boult conducts here is a blend of Herbage’s versions from 1935 and 1942. Compared to Prout, then, this is a stylistically authentic performance, but of course, many conductors and musicologists since Herbage have taken authenticity much farther. In other words, this recording, which is an enjoyable one overall, is neither bloated nor (if the metaphor may be forgiven) more Catholic than the Pope. That healthy middle ground may be a comfortable place for many listeners. I know it is for me.

That’s not to say that there are no idiosyncrasies and faults here. The “cast,” in retrospect, is rather oddly assorted. Joan Sutherland and David Ward sound most comfortable with the idiom, although only Sutherland engages in period-style embellishment of her vocal line. (In her later recording with Richard Bonynge, embellishment would be taken farther yet, but that’s another story.) If only she sang with more emotional involvement (and consonants!), hers would be an unbeatable contribution. (Her opening solos, in which the birth of Christ is announced, sound almost lachrymose.) Grace Bumbry was a new face in 1961, and I note with some amusement that Gramophone’s review at the time called her “a promising singer who should do well in Handel in years to come.” In fact, she ultimately went off in a very different direction, even taking on soprano roles later in her career. Even so, listeners who are looking for a contralto-ish Rock of Gibraltar may be satisfied with Bumbry’s rich sound here. There is not much emotional depth to her singing, though. Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar was an eclectic singer back in the day, not exclusively associated with the classical repertoire. Even so, he makes a very pleasant impression in the tenor arias here, although his contributions seem to come, if not from a different world, then at least from a different recording—one of The Yeomen of the Guard, perhaps. In “Comfort Ye,” he is correct and peaceable, but he does not convey anything of great dramatic importance. When the chorus is first heard singing so assertively in “And the Glory of the Lord,” immediately after McKellar has concluded “Ev’ry Valley,” the contrast is great. (Indeed, among the singers, I think the chorus is the true hero of this set. Is it my imagination, though, or did choruses sound more mature than they do today? Has the age of the average chorister decreased since the 1960s?) David Ward has a distinctive and imposing voice, although he does not always use it imposingly. His introductory accompagnato, for example, is too placid, when he sings of the Lord shaking the heavens and the earth. On the other hand, “But Who May Abide” has a nice touch of pathos to it. Ward seems to be more comfortable speaking for his fellow Man than he is warning about God’s anger. And in “The People That Walked in Darkness,” his hushed, mystery-filled singing almost crosses over into caricature.

From the very beginning of the “Sinfony,” one notes the absence of double-dotted rhythms in Boult/Herbage. Frankly, the result is less fussy or pompous than it can be on more authentic recordings where the double-dotting is observed. Otherwise, Boult invests the score with plenty of detail—dynamic distinctions, vocal and instrumental colors, and the ebb and flow of the drama all are given their due. Boult ensures that this Messiah becomes, as the cliché goes, more than the sum of its parts.

These discs—newly remastered? Newton Classics does not say—come with a new essay by Richard Lawrence. It recounts the story of how, at the premiere of Messiah, a member of the audience called out to contralto Susanna Cibber, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” at the conclusion of “He Was Despised.” I used to believe that this was an absolution of women in general—i.e., of original sin—but Lawrence’s essay asserts that it related to Cibber in particular, and an “adulterous liaison” she had engaged in, it is said. Can you imagine such a thing happening in present times, particularly during a performance of Messiah?

The last 30-some minutes of the third disc are filled out by three arias by McKellar—all from his Handel disc with Boult, recorded at about the same time—and two by Sutherland, one (“Let the Bright Seraphim”) from her famed 1960 The Art of the Prima Donna recital conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, and one (“With Plaintive Notes”) from a 1963 disc conducted by Bonynge. The McKellar arias share the virtues and faults of his contribution to Messiah. Sutherland’s do not have the benefit of Boult’s discipline from the podium, and are as mush-mouthed—albeit spectacularly so!—as much of what she recorded during the early 1960s. One feels guilty about complaining about such incredible singing, particularly given Dame Joan’s recent passing, but many of today’s singers have demonstrated that brilliant singing and good diction are not mutually exclusive. (If only those singers had Sutherland’s charisma!)

I could live quite nicely with this as the only Messiah in my collection…

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, March 2011

Once upon a time, pomp and pageantry were considered kosher for baroque music; and you’ll hear plenty of grand, stately music-making in this Messiah Sir Adrian recorded for London back in 1961. Rest assured that “grand and stately” do not translate into “plodding and boring”. Boult was much too good a conductor to let that happen. The few interludes that are taken at markedly slower tempos than we’re used to (the Overture, for example) retain their intensity and never go slack. Most of the sections are expertly paced, though not at jackrabbit speeds. So while you won’t get a zippy, one-to-the-bar ‘And the Glory of the Lord’, you do hear that wonderful chorus chugging along energetically, full of the love and zest for life Handel put into it. Ditto ‘For Unto Us’, ‘His Yoke is Easy’, ‘All We Like Sheep’, and the rest. ‘Surely, He Hath Borne Our Griefs’ and ‘He Trusted in God’ from the Easter Portion stand out as the two snappiest interludes of all. Indeed, for Messiah as a choral festival, this is one of the very good ones.

Alas, the solo work isn’t as engaging. Sutherland, needless to say, leads the pack with her inimitable blend of beauty and power. She’s also the only one who ornaments even a little, so count her the most musicologically enlightened of the four. ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ is chaste but regal, and her ‘Rejoice Greatly’ is a delight. ‘With Plaintive Notes’ and ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’, the two excerpts from Samson conducted by Molinari-Pradelli and Sutherland’s husband, Richard Bonynge, also are fitting tributes to the late soprano’s enduring artistry. Fans of La Stupenda needn’t hesitate.

For Sutherland and for Boult’s majestic realization of Handel’s masterwork, especially the choral writing, this merits your time and attention. I also must comment on London’s 50-year-old sound, which still fills up a room with glamorous detail.

Nigel Simeone
International Record Review, March 2011

Boult’s stereo recording of Handel’s Messiah in the Julian Herbage edition has Joan Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, Kenneth McKellar and David Ward as the soloists, with the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. It starts with an Overture of grand dimensions—a lot of players and spacious speeds. This isn’t going to be a Messiah for anyone wanting something swift and lithe, but Boult’s Messiah recordings (this one, and an earlier mono set) used Herbage’s cleaned-up text and were among the first attempts to present the work without nineteenth-century accretions. Ward is a strong bass soloist and the youthful Sutherland is excellent: she deserves credit for introducing some elegant ornamentation into her arias. Thanks to these soloists, there are several moments of more than purely monumental interest (for instance, Ward and Boult generate quite a bit of excitement in ‘But who may abide the day of His coming’), but choruses tend toward the massive, with some woolly articulation. Although tis recording may be of interest only to specialists, I’m glad to see it back in the catalogue. It comes with additional tracks of Handel arias sung by McKellar and Sutherland.

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3:54:05 PM, 23 August 2014
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