Handel: Messiah (UltraHD CD review)

Yvone Kenny, soprano; Paul Esswood, countertenor; Martyn Hill, tenor; Magnus Linden, bass; Anders Ohrwall, members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Stockholm Bach Choir. First Impression Music LIM UHD 029 (2-disc set).

"For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, call'd the MESSIAH, in which the Gent Lemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handel."

Of all the recordings of Mr. Handel's Messiah I've heard over the years, this FIM remastering of a 1982 Proprius disc is quite simply the best-performed and finest-sounding account of the lot. Indeed, it may be the finest-sounding choral-orchestral recording I've ever heard.

When George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote his Messiah in 1741, he probably had no idea that by the twenty-first century it would have become as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. But here it is, the Messiah performed by orchestras and choirs and even audiences all over the world, beloved by all. Not bad for a composition Handel wrote in just a little over three weeks. Remarkable.

Anyway, the first thing one notices about this FIM remastering is the remarkable depth of field involved. The listener can actually hear well into the small ensemble and hear them standing and sitting in front of one another. The space and air around the instruments enhance the dimensionality, making it one of those reach-out-and-touch-it experiences.

Then, because the opening movement is an orchestral Sinfonia, one notices the extreme clarity and naturalness of the sound. Every instrument stands in perfect relief, delineated in a wholly realistic, truthful manner, yet without any trace of brightness or edge. We know from the outset this recording is going to be a singular musical and aural treat.

Next, one notices the stereo spread, the soloists on risers to the left, the Stockholm Bach Choir spread out left to right, and the pared down Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in support. How wide is the production? When the organ enters, one would swear it was coming from a point well off stage to the far right of the right-hand speaker. It's uncanny.

Finally, in the second movement one notices the sound of the chorus and soloists. Every word is crystal clear, yet again without a trace of brightness or edge. This is, in fact, the most notable aspect of the recording because it's so unusual. In almost every other choral recording--because of the microphone placement or the type of microphones used or the intentional manipulation by the engineer--voices are brightened up, perhaps to make them more intelligible. That doesn't happen here. The voices are so lifelike, you would swear they belong to real people in a concert venue with you.

Still, no recording, no matter how good, would be worth much if it did not support a good performance, and a good performance is exactly what Maestro Anders Ohrwall and his forces produce for us. His interpretation is lively, invigorating, without in any way disturbing the solemnity or majesty of the music. Using a small number of members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a relatively small choir with superb soloists, Ohrwall combines period musical practices with confident, levelheaded judgments, his tempos, contrasts, rubato et al as stimulating yet well considered as one could want. It is as thoroughly involving a rendition as you'll hear anywhere.

Proprius recorded the music in Adolf Fredrik Church, Stockholm, Sweden, in February of 1982, and FIM (First Impression Music) remastered it in 2011 in their Ultra HD 32-bit mastering format. The results of both the original recording setup and the subsequent remastering are impressive in the extreme. As noted above, everything about the sound is better than anything you're ever liable to hear on a disc.

Now, the surprise: It's a live recording. That's right: made before a live audience. Why the surprise? Over the years, live recordings have almost never impressed me. They are usually too close-up or too distant, too forward or too soft, too noisy or too distracting. In the case of the Proprius/LIM set, none of the preceding applies. The audience remains exceptionally quiet during the performance, with only the very occasional slight cough or wheeze to remind one of their presence, and at the end there is no disruptive applause.

Finally, a word about the packaging: The folks at FIM use a hardbound approach, the two discs fitting into their own static-free sleeves, further housed in a pair of light-cardboard inner sleeves. Between the disc sleeves are twenty-eight pages of text providing extensive details about the music, the composer, the recording, and the remastering process. It's a deluxe package for a deluxe recording. Expect to pay for it.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa