This double-bill of oratorio brings Handel's seasonal favorite, Messiah, together with the less familiar but compelling Israel in Egypt, both performed by the Taverner Choir & Players and conductor Andrew Parrott. The pairing is interesting: while it might deter some of those looking for a stand-alone recording of Messiah, it might also encourage some listeners who come looking for Messiah to expand their Handel horizons.
Parrott's fastidious conducting is to Handel what the Oxford shirt is to men's clothing: buttoned down, crisp, and entirely passionless. Even the usually rousing Hallelujah chorus is on its best behavior -- rhythmically crisp, perfectly together, but dramatically moribund. Whether it appeals to individual listeners will depend entirely on their tastes. If one wants to be stirred at the core, then it's best to look elsewhere. But if one is excited by supreme tidiness, then this is the right choice.
The Taverner Choir shines most brightly on both of these recordings. The impeccable ensemble and crisp diction put a sparkling polish on Handel's choral textures, and even though the tempos are often slow and the mood often subdued, they still manage to remind listeners why Handel's choral works are so universally appealing. The consort plays well also, though the purely orchestral movements are often so slow that they are unable to maintain any sense of larger phrasing or shape. Emma Kirkby, Nancy Argenta, and Antony Rolfe-Johnson are standouts among the soloists.