EMI's 2009 recording of Messiah with the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, led by Stephen Cleobury, marks three anniversaries: the 250th anniversary of Handel's death, the founding of the University of Cambridge 800 years ago, and the death 80 years ago of Arthur Henry Mann. The last two are significant because Mann, as early as 1894, had led the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, in the first "modern" performance of Messiah shorn of the gigantism that had begun to overtake the oratorio soon after the composer's death, with greatly expanded orchestration and the use of gargantuan choral forces. (One notorious Victorian performance included 3,500 performers, 3,000 in the chorus and an orchestra of 500.) Mann's attempts to replicate the modest performing forces of Handel's time predated the ascendancy of the movement highlighting period performance practice by near three-quarters of a century.
Cleobury's reading of the score is modest and self-effacing, with no bells and whistles, letting the music speak for itself. The approach works beautifully -- this is not a version one would call spectacular in the brilliance of its soloists or in daring musical choices that prove revelatory -- but in all its particulars and as a whole, it sounds just, well...just right. Cleobury's tempos are always within the conventional range, but the deceptively simple but tricky relation of tempos between sections or movements feels absolutely natural and utterly convincing. The strong intuitive sense of organic unity that Cleobury provides makes this an especially satisfying performance. His soloists have unprepossessing voices, but they sing beautifully, with excellent intonation, technique, and tone, and they are expressive without being excessive. The Choir of King's College, made up of men and boys, performs with admirable vocal agility and the tone is exceptionally pure. The Academy of Ancient Music plays with grace and sensitivity, and the continuo part is realized with subtlety and inventiveness. EMI's sound is clean and intimate, and details of orchestration and voice-leading are easy to follow.