Handel: Messiah (UltraHD CD review)

Yvone Kenny, soprano; Paul Esswood, countertenor; Martyn Hill, tenor; Magnus Linden, bass; Anders Ohrwall, members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Stockholm Bach Choir. First Impression Music LIM UHD 029 (2-disc set).

"For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, call'd the MESSIAH, in which the Gent Lemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handel."

Of all the recordings of Mr. Handel's Messiah I've heard over the years, this FIM remastering of a 1982 Proprius disc is quite simply the best-performed and finest-sounding account of the lot. Indeed, it may be the finest-sounding choral-orchestral recording I've ever heard.

When George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) wrote his Messiah in 1741, he probably had no idea that by the twenty-first century it would have become as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. But here it is, the Messiah performed by orchestras and choirs and even audiences all over the world, beloved by all. Not bad for a composition Handel wrote in just a little over three weeks. Remarkable.

Anyway, the first thing one notices about this FIM remastering is the remarkable depth of field involved. The listener can actually hear well into the small ensemble and hear them standing and sitting in front of one another. The space and air around the instruments enhance the dimensionality, making it one of those reach-out-and-touch-it experiences.

Then, because the opening movement is an orchestral Sinfonia, one notices the extreme clarity and naturalness of the sound. Every instrument stands in perfect relief, delineated in a wholly realistic, truthful manner, yet without any trace of brightness or edge. We know from the outset this recording is going to be a singular musical and aural treat.

Next, one notices the stereo spread, the soloists on risers to the left, the Stockholm Bach Choir spread out left to right, and the pared down Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in support. How wide is the production? When the organ enters, one would swear it was coming from a point well off stage to the far right of the right-hand speaker. It's uncanny.

Finally, in the second movement one notices the sound of the chorus and soloists. Every word is crystal clear, yet again without a trace of brightness or edge. This is, in fact, the most notable aspect of the recording because it's so unusual. In almost every other choral recording--because of the microphone placement or the type of microphones used or the intentional manipulation by the engineer--voices are brightened up, perhaps to make them more intelligible. That doesn't happen here. The voices are so lifelike, you would swear they belong to real people in a concert venue with you.

Still, no recording, no matter how good, would be worth much if it did not support a good performance, and a good performance is exactly what Maestro Anders Ohrwall and his forces produce for us. His interpretation is lively, invigorating, without in any way disturbing the solemnity or majesty of the music. Using a small number of members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a relatively small choir with superb soloists, Ohrwall combines period musical practices with confident, levelheaded judgments, his tempos, contrasts, rubato et al as stimulating yet well considered as one could want. It is as thoroughly involving a rendition as you'll hear anywhere.

Proprius recorded the music in Adolf Fredrik Church, Stockholm, Sweden, in February of 1982, and FIM (First Impression Music) remastered it in 2011 in their Ultra HD 32-bit mastering format. The results of both the original recording setup and the subsequent remastering are impressive in the extreme. As noted above, everything about the sound is better than anything you're ever liable to hear on a disc.

Now, the surprise: It's a live recording. That's right: made before a live audience. Why the surprise? Over the years, live recordings have almost never impressed me. They are usually too close-up or too distant, too forward or too soft, too noisy or too distracting. In the case of the Proprius/LIM set, none of the preceding applies. The audience remains exceptionally quiet during the performance, with only the very occasional slight cough or wheeze to remind one of their presence, and at the end there is no disruptive applause.

Finally, a word about the packaging: The folks at FIM use a hardbound approach, the two discs fitting into their own static-free sleeves, further housed in a pair of light-cardboard inner sleeves. Between the disc sleeves are twenty-eight pages of text providing extensive details about the music, the composer, the recording, and the remastering process. It's a deluxe package for a deluxe recording. Expect to pay for it.


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