Top Ear

Colin Davis’ BRSO Messiah

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Jeremy Lee writes

Messiah nowadays is such a popular, even hackneyed piece (especially in Britain or America where DIY-Messiahs/Scratch Messiahs are a dime a dozen during festive seasons), that it would be interesting to note what the producer of this recording Michael Bremner has to say about the reaction of the Munich musical community when Colin Davis conducted a performance in November 1984 with these forces:  “With the orchestra and chorus of the Bavarian Radio and Margaret Price, Hanna Schwarz, Stuart Burrows and Simon Estes as soloists, it was the highlight of the musical season and a constant topic of conversation amongst the musical public.  For not only is the work seldom performed there, but also insofar as it is not known at all, it is largely misunderstood.”

Anyway, what we have here is an Eloquence reissue of a long out-of-print recording, Davis’ second, digital Messiah with the BRSO.  The old one, from 1966 with the LSO, is a classic recording that is often mentioned when “favorite Messiahs” come to mind, while a more recent version, also with the LSO, is available on its in-house label, and which is in my opinion not nearly as great as these two.

Compared to the LSO in the classic 1966 performance, the BRSO and choir seem to approach the work with a freshness of discovery.  Yes, at times the ensemble sounds tentative, and the Bavarian Radio Choir doesn’t sound as confident as the London Symphony Chorus, but the sheer beauty of the playing and singing equals, if not surpasses, the London forces.  Then there is Davis’ conception of the piece which has mellowed quite a bit since that recording.  He encouraged the LSO strings to really dig in their furious prestissimo tremolos in the middle of “But who may abide the day his coming” and give particular emphasis to the accents; the BRSO performance does not sustain such a high level of drama, and the accents are smoothed out, so instead we have a relaxing, cushion-like background to highlight the contralto’s solo.  And unlike the previous recording, there are a few surprises in store, such as “And by his stripes” which is performed a capella. But the differences of the two accompaniments end here: by and large they are the same conception of grandeur and honesty, totally lacking of any attention-seeking gestures.

The soloists are more of a mixed bag. Though all of them sing fine generally, they are certainly not ideal. Margaret Price has an extremely pretty voice as always, but she sometimes sounds strained and unfocused here, with an uncommonly strange vibrato and choppy phrasing. She also seems impatient in her divine aria “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” in which she creates little of the rapture and stillness that Carolyn Sampson in her recent recording with The Sixteen captures. Hanna Schwarz brings little character to her solos, and her diction is sometimes strange; Stuart Burrows is well-casted, but Simon Estes’s throaty voice and excessive vibrato blurs the runs in “Thus saith the Lord” and Why do the Nations”.

But whichever performance you end up with–this or the LSO versions–Davis’ conception of this great work is one to be listened to attentively, and if you can’t find the 1966 classic version (which I believe is out of print on CD) this BRSO version fits the bill nicely.

A very happy Easter to all of you.


  • Album name:  Handel:  Messiah
  • Performers:  Margaret Price (soprano); Hanna Schwarz (mezzo-soprano); Stuart Burrows (tenor); Simon Estes (bass); Sir Colin Davis (conductor);  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir
  • Label:  Australian Eloquence 480 0120
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  150:39

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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