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Classical Notes

Too Many Messiahs

Posted at 1:40 PM on December 16, 2010 by Steve Staruch (4 Comments)
Filed under: Musical philosophy

I recently received an email request from a new listener to Classical MPR. The listener wanted a recommendation for the "perfect" Messiah recording. My response was that I have several favorites, that there is no "perfect" Messiah and that my recommendation for a first Messiah purchase would be a newer recording. I recommended a very clean, clear sounding small ensemble CD with the Dunedin Consort and Players. (Linn 285). What catches my heart with this recording is that it is a Messiah for a hall like the Fitzgerald Theater, intimate and sweet. Nothing is forced in this performance and the words take center stage. Right after mentioning this on-air I received the following from Bruce in Stillwater:

"Steve - I was just listening to your comments about a listener who asked for your favorite Messiah performers, and while I enjoyed the ones you played for her I would like to share mine with you. I agree - I hate it when the sopranos sing with a mouth full of mashed potatoes or the bass gets tangled up in his shorts, but years ago I found a recording of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Kiri Tekanawa, Anne Gjevang, Keith Lewis and Gwynne Howell, conducted by Sir George Solti on the London label - it's the best I've ever heard and I listen to it several times all year long. It's a winner, as was GF Handel"

Let the discussion begin! What's your favorite Messiah performance?


Comments (4)

Kathleen Battle + Toronto Mendelsshon Choir + Toronto Sykmphony under Andrew Davis.

Can't beat the diva and the choir on this one. Balance just right for me.

Henry Pau

Posted by HenryPau | December 17, 2010 7:07 PM


I must own at least 10 recordings of the Messiah. My absolute favorite is a 1980 recording on The Smithsonian Collection label, with The Smithsonian Chamber Players, James Weaver conductor, Carole Bogard (soprano), Elvira Green (alto), Jeffrey Gall (countertenor), Charles Bressler (tenor), Leslie Guinn (bass) and The American Boychoir with members of the Norman Schribner Chorus. Unfortunately, it's never been (to my knowledge) released on CD, and I only have it on LP disks. But it outdoes any other version that I've heard. I'd give anything to find it digitally.

Posted by Mark Jarboe | December 17, 2010 9:59 PM


I'm 71 y ears old and my first Messiah was a set of about 20 78 RPM records with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Huddersfield Choral Society and Dame Isobel Baillie, Soprano, still here in the collection of 14,000 78's. Sargent and Huddersfield went on to record the work twice for Angel Records, once in monophonic sound and then in stereo. These were good recordings for the time. The Beecham recording which you featured was an exception even for those days. You commented "how times have changed." Well, Beecham with his slow pace and crazy orchestration wasn't the rule for those days 50 years ago either. By the way, it was while orchestrating this Messiah, and being asked whether to include a harpsichord continuo that Beecham made that famous quip about the harpsichord sounding like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof. If you come in contact with a LP copy of this recording, the artwork in the booklet is outstanding, put together by opera producer Doria Soria. Beechams recording lay claim to be the most complete recording to date, including an extra record of material usually omitted from Part The Third. During LPdays Hermann Scherchen recorded the smaller Dublin Version. Robert Shaw and Sir Colin Davis came out with light and spritely Messiahs too. Coming to the CD era, I like the Solti Chicago recording. It was my first. There's a Richard Hickox recording including counter tenor which is nice and stays in the car for year round playing, and a newer Robert Shaw with his Atlanta group including Sylvai McNair, which is nice too. Of the video versions of which I have 4, my favorite is a King's College DVD under Cleobury, a live performance given in a candle lit 12 century Netherlands church. The video work is superb as is the performance, and it's moving to watch the choir boys singing their hearts out. I'm also fond of tenor John Mark Ainsley's performance in this video. And yes, their is a Harpsichord.

Just for fun E Bay Messiah Records and Messiah CDs. Be careful if you buy, many of these recordings were not complete.

Posted by Jim Brownback | December 21, 2010 5:30 PM


I had sung the Messiah a couple of times in college, which beats all, but my vote goes to the Huddersfield Choral Society. In 1969/70 my wife and I lived in Huddersfield where I was doing doctoral research. We "queued" all one night around Huddersfield town hall with hundreds of others to buy tickets for the annual performance of the Messiah, drank hot tea, and made new friends. It was a big, romantic sound, befiting the wall of choristers at one end of the Victorian hall, not as crisp as some might like, but our sentimental favourite.

Posted by Ted Hobson | December 22, 2010 3:28 PM