Sir Adrian Boult’s first Messiah for Decca, newly remastered and coupled with a rare L’Oiseau-Lyre recording of the Bach Magnificat, new to CD.
When this Messiah was released in 1954, critics were quick to recognise it as exemplifying the English oratorio tradition at its finest. Boult used a large chorus – the London Philharmonic Choir, singing with superb discipline and clarity of articulation – but he rejected both the monumental style of performance cultivated by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the anachronistic trappings of Sir Thomas Beecham’s Handel. Boult slimmed down the LPO to chamber-orchestra dimensions, though he did not neglect the oratorio’s moments of grandeur, pathos and splendour. Almost everywhere, the recorded sound belies its age. With mono this vivid and with bass frequencies this powerful, few will pine for stereo. Each orchestral section is sharply delineated: a glint of oboe timbre here, a welcome emphasis on the bottom line’s crunchy bassoon timbre there.
In fact his stereo remake from seven years later (with the London Symphony Orchestra) has a more old-fashioned feel, due at least in part to a more operatically scaled team of soloists. In 1954 Boult’s cast was led by the elegant and imperious soprano of Jennifer Vyvyan. The male soloists, too, found favour with Benjamin Britten when casting his operas; the recording is particularly valuable as a rare example on records of the artistry of the American tenor George Maran: always well-focused, assured from top to bottom of the register.
More British singers on top form may be enjoyed in the coupling, a recording of Bach’s Magnificat made in 1955 for L’Oiseau-Lyre by the London-based Kalmar Chamber Orchestra and St Anthony Singers. The Swiss conductor Pierre Colombo, little known now, presides over a rhythmically vital account, lent a further ‘period’ feel by the stylish contributions of both the countertenor Alfred Deller and the slender, pure-toned soprano member of the Deller Consort, Eileen McLoughlin. This reissue is further enhanced by a new essay by R.J. Stove, contextualising both the works and these marvellous performances.
‘Beautifully engineered sound. Balance is exceptional in all directions… [enhancing] the excellent singing of the soloists the really fine choral discipline and the responsiveness of the LPO to a conductor whom they obviously respect.’ High Fidelity, September 1954 (Messiah)
‘This is deservedly a classic among Messiah recordings.’ Gramophone, March 1961 (Messiah)
‘A very strong and very attractive performance… Boult’s reading… is always firmly controlled and finely balanced, with excellent tempos.’ Stereo Review, February 1963 (Messiah)
‘Most enjoyable listening… Deller gives a performance of outstanding distinction… [Colombo’s] direction is lively and sensitive.’ Gramophone, January 1956 (Magnificat)
Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Norma Procter (contralto), George Maran (tenor), Owen Brannigan (bass-baritone), Eileen McLoughlin (soprano), Heather Harper (soprano), Alfred Deller (counter-tenor), Wilfred Brown (tenor), Maurice Bevan (bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Kalmar Orchestra, Sir Adrian Boult, Pierre Colombo