Recordings like Christopher Hogwood's Messiah are perfect vehicles for the debate of the authentic instrument movement in music. Especially here, since a work as well known to a wide general audience as the Messiah (the recordings of which number in the thousands) will get a number of varied reactions depending upon the performance.
Hogwood, although known to many as a "father" (of sorts) to the authentic movement in music, was actually the keyboardist in Neville Marriner's Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields before leaving to form his own Academy of Ancient Music. He has done extensive scholarly research into the performance traditions of Baroque music, much of which has permanently altered many long-standing attitudes and traditions in music performance. The question remains, though: does all of this research and application contribute to a finished product that is communicative to an audience?
It seems likely, if based only on the impressive cast. Augmenting the Academy's forces are tenor Paul Elliott, contralto Carolyn Watkinson, and sopranos Judy Nelson and Emma Kirkby. The Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, is equally impressive. For this recording, as is indicated in his extensive and thorough liner notes, Hogwood utilizes the 1754 Foundling Hospital version. Although it may be a surprising change for some listeners accustomed to the more "standard" versions, the re-creation of this performance is important in a number of ways, historically and artistically.
But from the opening bars of the overture, the atmosphere feels rushed. Harmonies are not given enough space or time to be heard and to blossom, and the atmosphere feels thin, grainy, cold, and dry. This seems hardly conducive to the rapture, passion, and magnificence depicted in Handel's score. Everything seems too perfect and too pure, too lifeless and too little energy. An additional annoyance is that the balance of the harpsichord seems far above the orchestra, in some cases (the "Glory of the Lord," for instance) even covering the singers when they dip into the lower registers.
These complaints are now almost cliché for those who consistently complain of Hogwood's performance style; for better or worse this recording could serve well as evidence. Looking past these issues, however, one can find a number of beautiful moments throughout. It is precisely due to his approach with this music that Hogwood is able to draw some extraordinary changes of color when and where he wants to. For example, the first bars of "and He Shall Purify" are breathtaking; the organ is significantly exposed here for the first time and finally he releases the music in a way that seems to let it unravel. The vocal solos are good throughout, and Kirkby's performance is notable for its suppleness and grace.
Keep in mind that this is a re-creative performance, designed to emulate the conditions of the performance at the Foundling Hospital. Unfortunately, in this case it also means that while the sound quality is certainly good, even though the playing and singing are exceptional, the performance itself may not draw you in. Years after its first release, this recording still leaves one cold, and if you desire a warm, emotional, and intimate performance you may do well to look elsewhere. For those who prefer something more austere, though, look no further.