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Review: Handel's 'Messiah' in radiant redux

Nikolaus Harnoncourt proves the power of restraint

By Porter Anderson

Now available: SONY-BMG released the new Harnoncourt interpretation on November 1.




George Frideric Handel

(CNN) -- Restraint? It just isn't something we do these days. We like loud, we like large, we like lavish. And we tend to think that any doing of Handel's "Messiah" should deliver lots of all three.

Those 600-singer performances from the early 1800s of Handel's great oratorio might go down well, you'd think, among this week's mall-weary holiday hordes.

Or maybe you'd put your money on the gorgeously bombastic cymbal-crashing "remake" of Sir Thomas Beecham. It's still available on RCA's landmark recording with Jennifer Vyvyan and the Royal Philharmonic.

But Austrian cellist and interpretive conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt would like you to think outside the boom box. And for your trouble, he's prepared this season to seduce your sensibilities with a singularly cogent, elegant and relentlessly restrained reading of some of the most widely over-sung, over-played and over-amped baroque music ever written.

Once more at the helm of the Concentus Musicus Wien (Vienna), the ensemble he founded with his wife, Harnoncourt is by no means a minimalist. You'll know just how much power the man can unleash quite early, in the often underrated chorus "And He shall purify."

This is where Harnoncourt establishes a kind of dancerly eloquence, as the sopranos pass to the basses a soft, courtly opening line. Then they all but slam you across the room with Handel's fabulous release into "... that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness." The choral force of the maestro's insight gathers, eddies, swirls and then rushes up into a tide of sound you've never quite heard in this piece -- and without sacrificing a busy tempo.

What's more, this "Messiah" was recorded live in Vienna's gilt-lined Musikvereinssaal. The sound is agile, even vaulting -- now in his 70s, Harnoncourt is handing you one of the youngest, freshest reconsiderations of this music you may ever hear.

The clue to all this is in Sabine Gruber's liner notes. She and Harnoncourt assert that Handel's handwriting may be the closest remnant left of his personality. Gruber writes of how when the composer (1685-1759) moved to England and changed his name to George Frideric Handel, he also adopted the English form of cursive penmanship. She notes a striking simplicity in the strokes of his writing, a cleanliness you can see in several handwriting samples pictured here.

The hand of Handel

Harnoncourt has found that simplicity in the music. He's not afraid to let a phrase stand alone in its own glorious instant.

  • "The glory of the Lord," the ensemble sings, "is risen upon thee" -- and the word "thee" is withdrawn, suddenly hushed, as if this prophecy of unfathomable ecstasy may, in fact, foretell a burden too heavy for the "cities of Judah" to withstand.
  • "Surely, He hath borne our griefs" leaves the gate at a gallop, and then all but lies down in a protracted, regretful "He was wounded ... for our iniquities."
  • "For unto us a child is born" seems to begin much too slowly. But the methodical andante quickly reveals its genius: When the chorus vaults into "Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace," what you notice is a churning, diligent buoyancy in those wing-beating strings that truly floats the awestruck hope of so heady a concept as the birth of a deity.
  • The same strings, a short time later, are scurrying as soprano Christine Schafer chases the ensemble into "And suddenly, there was with the angle a multitude of the heavenly host." That "host" bursts in on her -- "Glory to God!" -- only to come to a near standstill and murmur a darkening "and peace on Earth."
  • Still the hard part, you know. Peace on Earth.

    Moment to moment, aria to chorus, this performance darts and weaves, charges and feints, finding new intelligence in music and lyric until it rolls up into perhaps the most haunting "Hallelujah!" you'll ever hear -- resignation, exhaustion, radiant surrender.

    It's almost as if this formidable choral ensemble were in a dream, sometimes sitting bolt upright with the memory of a fine thought -- "King of Kings" -- then drifting again, as human distraction and preoccupation drag them back to a pianissimo of heartbreaking faith. They do rally, of course, to the closing cadence. But listen for the quick fade. Something here aches, longs, needs.

    Harnoncourt has classified himself a "true romantic." He earns it here with a noble, heroic labor of lucidity. We're all richer for it.

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