George Frideric Handel, Ensemble Matheus, Arnold Schoenberg Choir John-Christoph - Messiah

Published Saturday 11th September 2010
George Frideric Handel, Ensemble Matheus, Arnold Schoenberg Choir John-Christoph - Messiah
George Frideric Handel, Ensemble Matheus, Arnold Schoenberg Choir John-Christoph - Messiah

STYLE: Choral
RATING 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9
LABEL: Unitel Classica 703008
FORMAT: DVD Other video

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Reviewed by Steven Whitehead

They say that the line between insanity and genius is a narrow one and, quite frankly, I cannot decide where to place this release. Handel made his name as a composer of opera but the conventions of his time did not allow for Biblical material to be presented in this way. Instead there were oratorios: Bible stories as sung pieces but with no acting. So when we consider Handel's most popular oratorio, 'The Messiah', we know that it was not an opera and there is no suggestion that the composer ever had any thoughts of writing it as such. The concept of 'The Messiah' came from Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who compiled a series of texts from the King James Version of the Bible which were either from the Old Testament prophets, looking ahead to the Messiah, or from the Epistles and Book of Revelation from the New Testament, looking back. Significantly, there is very little material from the Gospels, probably because the intended audience knew it well enough for it not to be needed. All of which makes it difficult to use 'The Messiah' as a chronological, narrative piece of musical drama unlike, say, the Passions of Bach. To mark the 250th anniversary of Handel's death in 1759 the theatre director Klaus Guth has re-imagined 'The Messiah' as an opera about God. The scene is a large and faceless hotel with rooms big enough to accommodate the Arnold Schoenberg Choir; the setting is around a funeral and the time switches to the events leading up to the death seen in flash-back as well as the aftermath. Visually, this is a triumph The revolving stage at Vienna's Theater an der Wien is used very effectively, the lighting (designed by Jurgen Hoffmann) is suitably dramatic, and the choreography (by Ramses Sigi) excellent. The music is, without doubt, outstanding. 'The Messiah' is truly one of the jewels in the crown of music for all time, way beyond its original Baroque context. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir deliver a near faultless performance although as this is a live recording it is not completely flawless. There are times when the movement on and off stage (or the movement of the stage itself) demand that the music is taken at a slower pace than we might prefer but this seems to be an acceptable compromise. The singing of the six vocal principles is commendable but, and here we reach the reviewer's dilemma, the story they are telling is ambiguous. This reminds me of a stereotypical French avant guard movie where "The Man" is dead (under mysterious circumstances) and "The Wife" and "The Mistress" meet at "The Funeral" and the audience is left to work out the mundane details for himself. But let us give fair and fulsome praise to the soloists: Susan Gritton, Cornelia Horak, Richard Croft, Bejun Mehta, and Florian Boesch with a special word of praise for our boy soprano Martin Pollmann. What is particularly impressive is the fact that they have to act as well as sing and if some of them look somewhat bemused in places I think we can understand why. And finally, we come to the undoubted star of the show: Nadia Kichler, the sign language performer. She absolutely steals the show and we cannot take our eyes off her. I do not understand sign language and, for all I know, she is signing in German but her expressiveness is mesmerising and the way in which she is incorporated into the performance is very clever. It would be easy to suggest that those who find the idea of 'The Messiah' as an opera should just turn off the vision and listen but that would mean missing Miss Kichler's tour de force and, ultimately, this is a Messiah that is worth hearing and seeing.

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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