Getting A Handle On Handel

December 15, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

As the Annapolis Chorale prepares for this year's "Messiah" at St. Anne's (Dec. 21 and 22, Christmas portion only), this seems a good time to survey the CD bins for the "Messiahs" of choice.

As always, there are recordings of Handel's masterpiece for every taste and whim.Handel revised the work numerous times to fit many performance occasions in his own lifetime, so there is no single, definitive version of the piece, let alone a comprehensive, ultimate recording.

Among the original instrument/authentic performance choices, three selections stand out for me.

* Christopher Hogwood's recreation of a 1754 "Messiah" on L'oiseau Lyre was the first recorded attempt to blow off the modernistic cobwebs, and it retains its attractiveness.

* Trevor Pinnock (DG Archiv) also musters considerable excitement, and his alto, tenor and bass soloists beat Hogwood's hands down.

* The most majestic of the "original" versions comes by way of JohnEliot Gardner on Philips. With excellent soloists and a larger chorus than either of his rivals uses, Gardner presides over a grand, energetic "Messiah" eminently worthy of investment.

At the other end of the spectrum -- modern instruments and larger chorus and orchestra -- we might choose Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (London) or Andrew Davis' "Messiah cum Organ Concerto" on Angel. Despite the grand scale, neither reading is particularly thrilling, although Davisboasts the celestial Kathleen Battle as his soprano soloist.

Two delightful, middle-of-the-road "Messiahs" -- modern instruments with scaled-down forces -- are available, and both have the advantage of being cheap. Colin Davis' London Symphony account (Philips Silver Line) is as refreshingly lovely today as it was when it swept the field back in the 1960s. Raymond Leppard conducts a wonderfully straightforward, no-nonsense "Messiah" (Erato) that also is one of my favorites.

This year's novelty "Messiah" comes courtesy of conductor NicholasMcGegan, who has recorded the first comprehensive "Messiah" on discsbursting with virtually all of the versions Handel composed. Throughthe magic of digital audio, listeners can program their own "ideal" version of Handel's oratorio. You can select the alto or bass versionof "But Who May Abide."

Do you prefer the 12/8 version of "Rejoice Greatly"? Push a button and voila.

Merry Christmas and Happy Cueing.

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