Polyphony / Stephen Layton / Britten Sinfonia

George Frideric Handel: Messiah

  • AllMusic Rating
    9
  • User Ratings (0)
  • Your Rating

AllMusic Review by

There are so many excellent recordings of Messiah that the addition of another only further complicates the decision for the listener, but having such an abundance of riches should be no cause for complaint. Hyperion's recording with Stephen Layton leading the choir Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia is not among the flashiest or most star-studded, but it is immensely musically satisfying. Layton takes something of a middle ground in terms of performance practice; the Britten Sinfonia uses modern instruments, but its players are attuned to the subtleties of Baroque performance, as are the members of Polyphony, a chamber choir with about 30 singers. The small size of the ensembles is an antidote to the bloated numbers that have characterized many performances of the piece, and most importantly, makes possible the agility required to cleanly execute Handel's virtuoso choral writing when the appropriately lively temps are taken. The choir's clarity and precision in movements like "His yoke is easy," whose text demands the kind of dance-like springiness that Layton provides, is one of the strongest arguments for this version. Layton's soloists are likewise superb; they each bring impeccable, effortless-sounding technique and youthful, unmannered freshness to their parts. Julia Doyle's clarion soprano is crystal clear and bright. Iestyn Davies may not have the sumptuousness of some countertenors, but the naturalness of his sound and the purity and evenness of his timbre throughout his range make his a tremendously appealing performance. Allan Clayton's tenor is light but full, focused, and heroic, with none of the preciousness that can characterize English oratorio tenors. Bass Andrew Foster-Williams doesn't have the ideal weight for some of the low-lying solos, but his tone is warm and lovely. Layton's version is also noteworthy for its narrative urgency; it feels like he is telling a story rather than simply stringing together a series of arias, recitatives, and choruses. With clean, present sound, Hyperion's Messiah would make a fine first recording and also has much to offer connoisseurs of the work.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Messiah, oratorio, HWV 56
1 03:23
2 02:44
3 03:06
4 02:49
5 01:20
6 04:12
7 02:35
8 00:23
9 05:01
10 02:03
11 03:58
12 03:47
13 00:54
14 00:26
15 00:25
16 00:16
17 01:52
18 04:07
19 00:23
20 04:55
21 02:15
22 02:42
23 10:36

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
Messiah, oratorio, HWV 56
1 01:51
2 01:52
3 04:02
4 00:44
5 02:14
6 01:53
7 01:19
8 00:13
9 02:14
10 03:02
11 00:13
12 01:26
13 03:02
14 00:57
15 02:09
16 01:14
17 02:32
18 01:47
19 00:10
20 01:58
21 03:43
22 06:00
23 02:20
24 00:29
25 05:49
26 00:15
27 01:05
28 02:15
29 04:54
30 03:20
31 04:15
blue highlight denotes track pick