Sir Andrew Davis’s big beautiful Messiah: on Chandos

Last year the Toronto Symphony revived a new concert edition of Handel’s Messiah, first heard in 2010, created by their conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis. At the time of the December 2015 concerts I declared that I wanted to hear it again.

And I’ve got my wish unexpectedly, as Chandos have released a new recording based on the TSO’s performances from last year. Excuse me for sounding uncertain. I don’t hear any audience noise so I don’t believe they were captured from those December concerts at Roy Thomson Hall although the Chandos website says it was “recorded live”.

I pored over the liner notes but saw no explicit clarification other than a cryptic picture of technicians with the caption “in the control room during rehearsals”. But were those rehearsals for the live performances or rehearsals for a recording without a paying audience?

They didn’t say, and come to think of it, I don’t care.  I love what they’ve recorded.

ch5176

Must we be limited to only one?  Great works are routinely interpreted and paraphrased, given to us in many guises, and Messiah is no exception.  For those of the historically informed persuasion –a group with whom I sometimes align myself–this recording may be a transgressive pleasure, a high-calorie feast you mustn’t permit yourself if you’re on a strict diet.  But that’s just it, why can’t I sometimes hear this approach?  We have Beecham’s quaint sound that seems older than baroque in its obsolete ambition to knock your socks off during the Hallelujah chorus.  Davis gives us something with many of the same muscular impulses, but in pristine 21st century high-def sound.

It’s more or less the same as what we heard in December 2015 –with John Relyea, Andrew Staples, Erin Wall and Elizabeth DeShong—and the same cuts I observed at the time. The one I miss most is the middle section of “He was despised”(i.e. “He gave his back to the smiters”), especially considering the richness of DeShong’s voice.

Davis’s orchestration is like a witty commentary upon Handel, a gloss, a self-aware adaptation that sometimes positions itself in the tradition of Beecham’s big muscular sound with brass and percussion to underline key climaxes & phrases.

And sometimes it’s at least encompassing if not entirely following historically informed performance practice; for example in the Overture Davis first gives us something elaborated, then in the repeat offers us the stripped down version to which we’re accustomed. In places he’s playing with us, those listeners who know this work inside out, who have craved something without knowing exactly what we wanted. In “All we like sheep” and again in “Thou shalt break them” there are unmistakable touches of whimsy, an understated humour, an innocent playfulness.  But the precise descriptor eludes me. And so as I struggle to put this into words, I’m borrowing from a friend.

Whimsy is a lost love that the world has tossed into the bottom of the toy chest of forgotten treasures of youth. The world is too full of itself and drowning in ego to rediscover the magic of whimsy. Perhaps one day it will open the chest and rediscover what has been lost.

If you can let go of your ego, you’ll enjoy the pure beauty of this recording, along with its witty touches.  There’s nothing odd about it even though we’re sometimes hearing marimba, snare drum, and combinations of instruments as you haven’t heard before in a Messiah. 

The difference between seeing this in Roy Thomson Hall and on CD? In the hall it was clear, although at times the solo voices were partly covered by the big orchestra. On the CD it has high-definition clarity, a crystalline and edgy sound to match the clarity of Davis’ new edition.

Sometimes when I’m listening to a historically informed performance, I’m flying on the wings of historicity, high on the druggy aura of accuracy, as my disbelief is suspended. My modern ear has to sometimes be checked at the door, making allowances, the same way we ignore infelicities in a staging or some other aspect of a performance that collides with the exigencies of what’s required by a modern audience. The trumpet we hear in period-instrument versions of “The trumpet shall sound” are often the most problematic perhaps due to my romantic idea (and i know i am totally wrong as far as the baroque understanding of the piece): that if this is God’s trumpeter (perhaps an archangel?), surely God would find someone who can play the instrument in tune? But alas I’ve heard period versions where you could see an entire audience wince together. Heresy or not, Davis gives us a trumpet that sounds properly divine, not merely competent but stunningly beautiful.

Is Toronto Messiahville? One can have so many diverse Messiah experiences, between the period one from Tafelmusik, the modernized versions such as the Against the Grain choreographed Messiah or the Electric Messiah from Soundstreams to be offered again this year. And to this group we can add the Davis’ orchestration that underlines all the key phrases and punctuates all the most dramatic sections with extra brass & drums. It’s as though the Beecham version has been updated for modern ears & recording technology.   I think you’d find it compelling, as it’s not hindered by some quest for authenticity, indeed it’s going in another direction altogether. Instead it aims for more basic goals: beauty and spirituality.  You’ll get no arguments from me. It’s now a permanent resident in my car, uplifting the saddest traffic jam.

TSO Messiah 2015_Sir Andrew Davis

The Toronto Symphony and Sir Andrew Davis, conductor laureate (photo: Malcolm Cook)

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