Stephen Layton’s Goldilocks “Messiah” recording: Just Right

Each year there are multiple new recordings of Handel’s most famous work, Messiah. Since Handel revised the work for each performance that he gave of Messiah, there is no such thing as an “original version,” so most recordings now attempt to recreate some particular performance or other, or occasionally other arrangements (e.g. Mozart’s) of the oratorio. Many of them are outstanding, but it is somewhat refreshing to hear a new recording that is a middle of the road performance, with a nod toward being historically informed, but performed with modern instruments.

Such is Stephen Layton’s new recording of Messiah with that wonderful British vocal ensemble Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia.  The uniformly excellent soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano, Iestyn Davies, countertenor, Allan Clayton, tenor, and Andrew Foster-Williams, bass.  Iestyn Davies is an up-and-coming countertenor, and to my mind is the best of the group.  Andrew Foster-Williams has a lovely, well-produced voice, but it seems a little light for some of the great exclamations required in Handel’s arias, especially “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” which for me the standard will always be John Shirley-Quirk in Coliin Davis’s landmark recording from the mid-1960s.

The recording follows a live London performance with these forces in December 2008.  Polyphony’s annual performances of Messiah are a London tradition, so it is good to have a permanent audio souvenir.

Polyphony’s choral sound is clear and bright, with excellent diction.  A few of Layton’s dynamic choices seem a bit mannered, and I’m not sure what prompted his decision to begin the closing “Amen” chorus a capella, especially since Handel has a figured bass part for the opening of the chorus.

But like Goldilocks’s adventures at the three bears’ house, this recording is neither too hot at the cutting edge of performance practice, nor too cold with no style.  Rather it is a fine sensible and tasteful performance that should be pleasing to a wide audience.

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