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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa