René Jacobs' performance of Handel's 1750 version of Messiah is remarkable for the fresh insights he brings to such a familiar work. His reading is fleet but never hurried, and movements flow fluidly from each other, virtually without pause. This Messiah is an integrated whole, whose ebbing and flowing move it inexorably toward its climaxes, avoiding the usual sense that the oratorio is merely a string of separate, thematically related numbers. The speed of some sections, and certain unconventional articulations, can at first seem eccentric, but Jacobs' interpretive decisions are always guided by the meaning of the texts, and when the initial surprise fades, seem obviously to be the best choices possible. In the sections that can be ponderous in more conventional performances, the continuo, prominent without being overpowering, provides the rhythmic engine that keeps the momentum alive. The free use of ornamentation by the soloists, chorus, and instrumentalists gives the familiar melodic lines a snap that makes them sound freshly invented.
Jacobs' performers sing and play with a lightness and flexibility perfectly suited to his interpretation. Tenor Kobie van Rensburg and countertenor Lawrence Zazzo have both the clarion tone and vocal fire that characterize the best soloists in English oratorio. For the most part, Neal Davis' bass matches their standard, but lacks the weight necessary for some of the solos, and he occasionally swallows important syllables. Soprano Kerstin Avemo and alto Patricia Bardon have voices that are pure toned and supple. The Choir of Clare College sings with transparency and breathtaking agility, and Freiberger Barockorchester plays with a warm tone and rhythmic crispness.