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North America Music Critics Name their Favorite Versions of Handel’s “Messiah”


On April 13th Handel’s masterwork – first performed as a benefit concert in Dublin, Ireland as a benefit fundraiser – turns 265 years old. In celebration, Music Academy Online surveyed U.S. and Canadian classical music critics, so average listeners and aficionados alike can choose from the best, this Easter holiday season.

Santa Barbara, CA, April 10, 2007 --(PR.com)-- A work that Beethoven once copied by hand, note for note, “just to get the feeling of its intricacies and to unravel its complexities," George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” is 265 years old, this Friday April 13, 2007.

Recognizing the popularity of this Christian-holiday favorite, Music Academy Online began surveying members of the Music Critics Association of America (MCANA) last December. Since these and more than 800 other recorded versions of Handel’s “Messiah” are available at Amazon.com alone, MAO conducted this survey, to help novice classical music lovers learn which are the most critically acclaimed.

Currently, with 23% of the MCANA membership responding, the clear favorite is a 1980 recording conducted by Christopher Hogwood, with soloists Emma Kirkby, Judith Nelson, Carolyn Watkinson, Paul Elliott and David Thomas. The orchestra is The Academy of Ancient Music, and the CD version was released on October 10, 1991 on Decca/L'Oiseau-Lyre.

Additionally, several versions have tied for second place among the U.S. and Canadian critics, with an equal number of votes. They include the following:

· EMI’s 1990 CD release with Andrew Davis conducting the Toronto Symphony and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, with featured soloists Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler, and Samuel Ramey.

· The 1966 recording released on CD by Phillips in 1993, performed by London Symphony Orchestra with soloists Helen Watts, Heather Harper, Ralph Downes, John Shirley-Quirk, Leslie Pearson, John Wakefield and William Lang, conducted by Sir Collin Davis and John Alldis.

· Two Robert Shaw Orchestra versions: one with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Choir (Telarc CD-80093) and a remastered 2004 version with soloists Richard Lewis, Thomas Paul, Judith Raskin, Florence Kopleff, Robert Conant and Robert Arnold, with James Smith on trumpet, on RCA/Red Seal.

· The 1976 recording conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, released by Decca on CD in 1995 (based on the first London performances of the "Messiah'' in 1743, not its final 1751 version), performed by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra, with soloists Philip Langridge, Anna Reynolds, Gwynne Howell, and Elly Ameling.

· Two versions conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1996 version on ASV, 2006 version on Signum UK), both featuring Felicity Lott, Robert Lloyd, and Phillip Langridge.

Interestingly, too, while many consider Handel’s “Messiah” to be “sacred music,” there are those who responded, among the North American critics, who probably could live their lives happily never hearing the strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” ever again.

Principal among those is self-described “Messiah Scrooge” Wes Blomster. A retired University of Colorado professor of German, now a freelance writer living in Boulder, Blomster writes, “My favorite version of Handel's ‘Messiah’ is the Bach Christmas Oratorio. The hegemony of Handel at this time of year turns me into a near-violent Anglophobe. I used to make a practice of spending the holidays in Berlin, just to avoid the ‘Messiah.’” Similar preferences stated by other critics include Beethoven’s “Mass in C,” the Mozart C Minor Mass, and Haydn’s “Seasons,” as well as contemporary compositions, such as John Adams's “El Niño” and Phil Kline's “Unsilent Night.”

It should be noted that Handel exerted considerable influence on Beethoven at various stages of his career. With this transcription of Handel's vocal fugue "And With His Stripes" from The Messiah, Beethoven sought to learn from the older composers fuguel techniques. Many of Beethoven's fugues are strongly influenced by Handel, with their long, sectional themes and their occasional unconventional procedures.

Beethoven was reputed to have picked up Handel's Messiah with these words, "Here is a different fellow" and proceeded to play the most interesting looking passages. On another occasion he is said to have remarked, "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived", and spoke of the oratorio as having "sublimity of language". The music of Messiah so permeated Beethoven's being that on his deathbed he is reputed to have quoted from The Messiah stating that if there were a physician that could help him "His name shall be called Wonderful.”

Complete survey results are available at the Music Academy Online website. According to founder/president David Schwartz, Ph D., the "Messiah" survey, first of its kind conducted by MAO, is part of its ongoing mission — to bring together musicians, scholars, educators, orchestras, ensembles, academia and other institutions, and vendors — created to provide music lovers a unique online environment that fosters and cultivates appreciation for music.

The purpose of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) is to act as an educational medium for the promotion of high standards of music criticism in the press of the Americas, to hold meetings in which self-criticism and exchange of ideas will promote educational opportunities, and to increase general interest in the growing culture of the Americas. MCANA is a member of the National Music Council, which was formed in 1940 to provide a forum for the discussion of the country's national music affairs, to act as a clearing house for the joint operation and decisions of its members, and to work as a force to strengthen the importance of music in our society and culture. The Council has a membership of 50 national music organizations encompassing every form of professional and commercial music activity. To learn more, please visit www.mcana.org.

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MCANA “MESSIAH” SURVEY - ACTUAL/VERBATIM COMMENTS

1) Live-Performance ____ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label

You're talking to someting of a "Messiah" nut -- 77 recordings of the thing in my collection, I'm embarrassed to say! -- but none of the "live" versions would warrant a prime recommendation. Ditto the "live" videos.

2) In-Studio ____ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label.

Okay -- top-dog, without question, is the Hogwood on L'Oiseux-Lyre. If you can have only one recording, that's it. But, for those wanting alternate views

Number 2 (for 180-degree contrast) is the Beecham on BMG. (Though I'd NEVER recommend it as anyone's ONLY version!)

Number 3 (a compromise candidate, especially for lovers of opera-sized voices, who can't deal with Victorian bloat and lack the guts -- no pun intended -- for period instruments) is Andrew Davis' set, with Battle, Ramey, et al (on EMI, I believe?)AND anyone who loves the piece needs the Mozart orchestration as well. These days, I'm particularly liking the Malgoire (on Astree, perhaps?)____

Video (Tape and/or DVD): Please name artist and, if possible, video or broadcast source.

Though it feels a bit stiff and camera-bound, the Hogwood (same cast and similar forces). Also, just picked up (but haven't watched yet) the "film" that Minkowski's recording was the soundtrack for. Looking forward to seeing a narrative, cinematic response to the work.Anyhoo -- good luck with boiling-down umpteen opinionated responses into a set of single recommendations!

2) In-Studio __x__ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label.Telarc CD-80093 - Robert Shaw /Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Chorus - I think that there are many other excellent recordings, but this is the only one I own.

Audio: Marriner (Decca) - Audio (Mozart arr.): Mackerras (ASV) both studio --

Video: Cleobury (Image Entertainment) live

Dear John: Maybe it's a matter of being loyal to your first love, but I grew up on the 1978 Neville Marriner version on the Argo label. Based on the first London performances of "Messiah'' in 1743. It's an Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields endeavor with Elly Ameling among the soloists. There's something about its relatively austere sound that still moves me. Merry Christmas, and thanks for your persistence.

Audio version: Robert Shaw, Robert Shaw Chorale (RCA Red Seal, newly reissued on CD), robust performance. Have not seen any video versions.

Colin Davis: Gardiner, harper, watts, et al on Philips

AUDIO: Andrew Davis, Toronto Symphony, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler, Samuel Ramey, EMI (I would take this one to a desert island. I never tire of "Messiah." It is one of the essential works in the canon.)

1. Telarc: Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman; soloists Clift, Robin, Fowler, Ledbetter. At first I was surprised to realize that this rather non-all-star production was the best all-around Messiah available, but I return to it annually and it remains at least tied, if not absolutely, at the top of the list.

2. Bis: Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki; soloists Suzuki, Mera, Elwes, Thomas. Exceptional all around.

3. Archiv: The English Concert and Choir, conducted by Trevor Pinnock; soloists Auger, von Otter, Chance, Crook, Tomlinson; fine in general and unsurpassed in the exceptional performances by Auger and von Otter.

4. Harmonia Mundi: Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie; soloists Schlick, Piau, Scholl, Padmore, Berg. Very fine, non-clichéed approach.

5. Philips: English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; soloists Marshall, Robbin, Rolfe-Johnson, Hale, Brett, Quirke. I put this on the list because Rolfe-Johnson is exceptional in his part.

Hi Music Flak, I haven't listened to enough to pick a favorite yet. Right now I'm listening to the latest Naxos recording, but I also like Apollo's Fire.

My favorite in-studio one -- any format, it's available in audio and video -- is Hogwood, AAM, Kirkby, etc. I don't have a favorite live one, or at least, not one that comes to mind.

1) Live-Performance David Randolph and the St. Cecilia Orch__x__ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label,

2) In-Studio _x___ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label. Charles Mackerras on EMI

3) Have heard enough versions of the “Messiah” to last a lifetime. Instead, I prefer... Beethoven Mass in C; Mozart C Minor Mass; Faure Requiem

____ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label: Don't have any favorites in this category...

2) In-Studio ___X_ Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label.Academy of Ancient Music, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Christopher Hogwood conducting; Decca/L'Oiseau-Lyre

From 25 years as a record critic (a period ending in the 1970s!) I saved the Colin Davis recording, as the best compromise between musicologically correct baroque interpretations and the large-scale British interpretations that captivated Haydn and continue to fill Westminster Abbey.

That said, as a vinyl nut and a period instrument devotee with a particular fondness for historic tunings (for the record, Handel used 1/4 meantone which was standard practice in England at the time), the Handel Messiah recording I use for reference is an LP set issued by the Smithsonian in the early 1980s (1981 to be exact) featuring the American Boychoir with members of the Norman Scribner Chorus accompanied by the Smithsonian Chamber Players under the direction of James Weaver (Smithsonian Collection LP N025).

Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, this beautifully and accurately played recorded performace has not been reissued on CD, although I don't mind hearing it on LPs, and is currently out of print.

John, don't know how to fill in these questions with an email: my computer won't do it. So... Favorite: Solti on London because of the Chicago Symphony and its magnificent chorus. How's that? Favorite live: Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Weinb because of the exciting tempo and because for once the soloists aren't awful.

#1 Hogwood on L’Oiseau-Lyre
#2 Pinnock / English Concert on Archiv#3 McCreesh / Gabrieli Consort on Archiv

Audio (Vinyl, Tape and/or CD): Please name artist and, if possible, record label, English Chamber Orchestra; Joan Sutherland and, of course, Richard Bonynge; London – favourite is difficult as the recording of what I imagine to be my favourite Messiah has yet to be issued.
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