CD From Hell: Andrew Davis’ More Is Less Messiah

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 1

Sound Quality: 9

Wait. What’s that snare drum doing there? And is that a harp in “Comfort ye”? Brass and winds–lots of them–in the Sinfonia? (Someone forgot to tell the horn (trombone?) to cut off at the end…) Did someone just discover a trove of missing parts for Handel’s Messiah and we’re now getting to hear this most popular oratorio of all time the way the composer intended? Well, no. Unfortunately this project is just another vanity indulgence for someone–conductor Andrew Davis–with way too much time on his hands, who decided he needed to juice up, spice up, soup up, whatever you want to call it, Handel’s already perfectly fine Messiah.

Why does Davis think that simply adding “all the colors available from the modern orchestra”–not based on any musicological argument but rather entirely his own invention–will in any way enhance or improve our experience of the work? In fact, Davis never really explains why he spent 10 months of his life creating this unessential, unnecessary “new concert edition”, mentioning only a desire to “do a ‘grand’ version…” Vile, pretentious, at times garish, devoid of subtlety…what exactly are we as listeners supposed to take away from this P.T. Barnum show?

Mind you, this is all centered on the orchestration–and the effect is not only to draw attention away from the primary focus of the work–the soloists and chorus–but often is so overpowering that the chorus is not even heard–even in parts of the “Hallelujah!” chorus. Will Davis win over his audience with his habit of jacking up endings with surging brass blasts? He claims a desire to create moments of drama and pathos–but doesn’t Handel’s work already do that? Isn’t that a major reason it stands where it does today among the most beloved, oft-performed works in history?  But he also seeks to create moments of “whimsicality”. Why?

And we might also ask why, why does this particular work invite such foolishness? Should the likes of Davis also feel obliged to tinker with Bach’s B minor Mass? Beethoven’s Ninth? Brahms’ Requiem? Note that the rating is for artistic merit–not the performances, which are as fine as the Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Symphony, and a quartet of excellent soloists can deliver. We can only wonder who thought the time and financial resources devoted to this folly were worth it? You’ll have to make your own decision.

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