Messiah

 

Handel Messiah oratorio to libretto by Charles Jennens (Foundling Hospital Version, 1753). (The actual title of the recording is Handel's Messiah in Grace Cathedral, but we are indexing it simply as Messiah.) Performed Dec. 18 & 19, 2014 by the American Bach Soloists and the American Bach Choir at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco under the baton of Jeffrey Thomas. Stars Mary Wilson (soprano), Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Kyle Stegall (tenor), Jesse Blumberg (baritone), and John Thiessen (trumpet).  Stage direction by Philip Daley; the audio recording was produced by Chris Landen; directed for video by Frank Zamacona; produced by Abigal McKee with Don Scott Carpender as Executive Producer. This title has no subtitles in English or in translation. Released in 2016, the disc has a 5.1 dts-HD sound file that was recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling as well as surround and stereo files recorded at 48kHz/24-bit. Grade: B-

This title is available through the American Bach Soloists website (see link below) or a few Amazon stores. At least one Amazon customer has reported that the disc plays only on Region A machines even though it is labeled ABC.

American Bach Soloists now has 3 audio discs for sale. This is apparently the only video American Bach Soloists has produced. It's available in DVD as well as Blu-ray. This was made primarily for the traditional religious markets in the U.S. and England. The libretto of Messiah is relatively simple and easily available, so the producers did not budget for subtitles. Still, the far East is a strong market generally for Western classical music, so the producers may have missed a sales opportunity by not providing subtitles in other, and especially, Asian languages.

Frank Zamacona is perhaps the most experienced videographer of fine-arts productions now working on the West Coast of the United States. But the dark and cramped venue doubtless presented many difficulties for him while working (probably) with a tiny budget.  Some of the screenshots below look "grayed out" or drab, but the images are brighter in my TV display than on the website.

This title is perhaps something of an experiment for the producers. But we know that even small operations can publish amazing things. See, for example, the wonderful HDVDs we have from Priory (a small British label specializing in church music) featuring wonderful organs in ancient British cathedrals. Let's hope American Bach Soloists will continue working on new HDVD titles!

Next below is a whole-orchestra (WO) shot of the American Bach Soloists:

The modest orchestra has 25 strings (14 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 3 dbl. basses), 6 winds (2 oboes, 2 bassoons, and two trumpets), and 3 percussion (small organ, harpsichord, and timpani). The choir of 36 has 11 sopranos, 10 altos, 8 tenors, and 7 basses. There's no room for the choir as a block, so it is divided by the altar (a common problem when recording in churches). Today we are used to hearing Messiah performed by much larger forces. But Handel's original concerts probably used even fewer performers than we see here.

As the full title of the recording suggests, this is a video of the Cathedral as well as of a musical performance.  About 20% of all the video clips show the church instead of musicians. At least 29 artworks (named in credits at the end of the video) are highlighted.

Unfortunately, the picture quality is not crisp. We accept the assertion that this was shot in 1080i video. We think the soft resolution and weak color are caused by poor lighting and arduous working conditions in the church. Still, viewers could get the impression that it is an “upconverted” DVD!

The audio is very good: detailed, with good instrumental clarity and presence, and a nice bloom (without excessive echo) thanks to the acoustic properties of Grace Cathedral.

Now let's see some screenshots. First below are  2 nice shots of the interior of the Cathedral:

Next below is a closer view of the altar above:

And here is some detail from the altar:

The cathedral also has curtain art and lovely relief pieces. Keep in mind this is California, and not, say Germany, with its incredible treasures of religious art treasures from the Middle Ages. First we see the curtain art from the perspective of a typical visitor:

Alas, the curtain hinders what would normally be a decent whole-orchestra shot:

Other art:

Cut to the performers! Many of the conductor shots are taken from the awkward steep angle below:

Next below is an example of the dreaded “conductor-over-backs” shot. We generally condemn these shots as having little value and for being over-used. Sometimes a shot from this vantage point can be valuable as an architectural statement or for other dramatic purposes. But this view has little going for it:

Next below are shots of Jesse Blumberg (singing the bass part, although listed as a baritone in the credits) and soprano Mary Wilson. These views are enjoyable, but we consider them too close to be "realistic." Probably no one in the audience can see the soloists this well. Close shots like this are fine on occasion for special emphasis, but we generally prefer soloist shots that keep at least the waist of of the singers in view and let us see the singer "in context."

Now below we have a "realistic" shot of countertenor Eric Jurenas. This is what he would look like from the best seat in the house. We can see and hear him very well, and we also see quite a few of the other singers around him. At this point they happen to be at rest:

The next shot below is of tenor Kyle Stegall. This call this view "realistic" as we can clearly see his waist and also can see at least a bit of his environment:

The instrumentalists in this concert are on one level crammed into a wee space. We dislike the way DVDs were too often made in the past with many short, close-up shots of small parts of the orchestra. In general we like to see as many of the players as possible who are actually performing. Well, in this church we will have to be happy with whatever we can get. Here we see 8 of the violins, so we will call this a "Large Section" shot:

The next shot below is similar to the one above, but we can only see 5 of the violins well. We call this a "small scale" clip:

But now admire this great image below of all 14 violins! When we hear the violins playing as a section, this is what we want to see!

Back now below to a typical DVD-style small scale shot:

We have to be flexible and sensible. The next shot below only shows the backs of musicians, something we generally abhor. But this shot has value because we see how the harpsichord and the organ are squeezed in among the lower string players:

Oh dear! In these narrow confines we run into odd obstructions that distract from the beauty of the images:

oloists876xkj.30.jpg

Next below is a nice shot of the right half of the divided choir:

Finally, we see most of the left half of the choir and a bunch of smiles as the piece concludes with warm applause:

I (Bryan Balmer) will offer a few thoughts on the performance. Jeffrey Thomas’s conception of Messiah is a highly worthwhile addition to my collection of 9 audio-only performances, 2 outdated DVD productions (Christopher Hogwood from 1982, and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation production from 2002), and a Blu-ray of a dramatic realization of Messiah (directed by CLaus Guth) that has been previously reviewed on HDVDarts.com. Thomas’s performance, considered as a whole, has a very satisfying ebb and flow. There is a sense of lightness that brings a welcome forward momentum (sometimes a 2 hour piece of music can seem like a big listening commitment). Time flies quickly for me during this particular title. I will contrast this with the staged production from the Theater an der Wien. While it is certainly dramatic – not just visually, but also vocally – I sometimes find its intensity gives the oratorio an unwelcome heaviness.

Perhaps the overall lightness of Thomas’s Messiah is contributed by such factors as the size of the performance forces (relatively small), tempi that never drag while nevertheless giving sufficient space for the music to breathe, as well as delectable sparkle from the very tasteful harpsichord continuo. The choruses “dance” where appropriate. For example, “And the glory of the Lord”, “For unto us a Child is Born”, and “All we like sheep” have a lovely lilt, and are taken at what must be a challenging pace for the choir. Rest assured that diction and clarity never suffer! This expert choir also has a very satisfying blend and balance.

Although the choir steals the show, the soloists are all solid and sincere. I especially enjoyed the tenor and bass. One of my favourite moments of the piece comes immediately after the overture. The tenor recitative “Comfort ye, my people” floats effortlessly above the graceful string accompaniment, with an absolute purity of tone. Perfection! The bass has an attractive agility and lightness of tone, while still successfully managing to convey conviction in such pieces as the famous aria “Why do the nations so furiously rage together."

The soprano opening suffers, albeit mildly, from what I felt to be some tightness in her upper register during her opening recitative “There were shepherds abiding in the field” (immediately following the Pastoral Symphony). But she gains momentum as the performance proceeds. “How beautiful are the feet” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” are delivered with sincerity, and vocal beauty is never in doubt.

Similar to the staged production from the Theater an der Wien, this performance engages a countertenor instead of a female alto. Eric Jerenas in this Grace Cathedral performance gives the impression of “floating above the drama.” He doesn't perform to the level of Bejun Mehta (from the Theater an der Wien production) who has greater control of his tone production and varies it more successfully for dramatic effect. A quick comparison of “He was despised” demonstrates this shortcoming. It is likely worth mentioning that this issue is less distracting in pastoral arias such as “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd."

My comments about the soprano and countertenor are minor quibbles (which others may hear differently). Please be assured my observations are certainly not enough to distract from the performance as a whole.

Now I must turn to the more abstract discussion of video content. Regular readers of this website know we applaud Blu-ray videos that take full advantage of HD cameras. We complain about videos that were made as DVDs and are then recast as Blu-ray discs. The Blu-ray presentation may have better resolution and sound than the DVD. But usually, the video content is exactly the same as the DVD, which means the Blu-ray video is inferior to what it could have been. For more on this subject, see our special article on the good classical music Blu-ray and the dread disease of DVDitis.

I'm very familiar with Messiah from live performances and many recordings. I report that Zamacona's video style is consistent throughout this whole disc. I took 2 samples what were also consistent. Here are my HDVDarts statistics for the 1st quarter of the oratorio from 00:01:32 to 00:33:18 (up to and including the bass aria "The people that walked in darkness"):

Duration: 31 min, 46  sec = 1906 seconds total

Total video clips: 179, which break down as follows:

  • 20 = conductor-only
  • 5 = conductor-over-backs
  • 34 = soloist(s) not realistic
  • 11 = soloist(s) realistic
  • 35 = solos, small sections, small groups, and DVD-like views
  • 18 = large sections, large groups, and HDVD-like views
  • 10 = part orchestra
  • 11 = full orchestra
  • 35 = architectural and art views.

The pace, or average length of the video clips, is 10.6 seconds per clip. 47% of the clips are "supershots", i.e. realistic soloists, large sections, large groups, part-orchestra and whole-orchestra shots (not including the architectural shots of the church and artwork images). Conductor shots are only 14% (which is good), but only 24% of the soloist shots are realistic (which is weak). I'm confident that the statistics for this whole video would be about the same.

To arrive at a grade, I start with an “A+”. I feel that at least one full grade deduction is required for weak PQ, bringing us to a “B+”. Surprisingly, no grade deduction is necessary for SQ. It is excellent, and is available in 96kHz/24-bit.

In the special article mentioned above, we have determined:

A good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% of the clips should be large-scale supershots (higher is better). Conductor shots should be less than 20% of the clips in the video (way less really). Over 50% of soloist shots should be realistic.

This Messiah passes the pace test (with more than 10 seconds in the average clip) and supershots test at 47% (not including the shots of the church itself).  Conductor shots are restrained at only 15%. The only criterion not met is the percent of realistic soloist shots. These were counted at just 24%, which falls short of the required 50%.

Given the importance of realistic soloists to this work, I make a full grade deduction  This brings us to a “C+”. But given my overall enjoyment of the title, C+ seems too harsh. I therefore give a gentle nudge to a B- as my final grade. If picture quality is your primary consideration when purchasing a fine-arts Blu-ray, you may want to avoid this title. However, please be assured that there are many other attributes of the title to enjoy! Finally, this title shows how it is easier than ever now for even a small organization to make a big contribution to fine-art videography. If American Bach Soloists will try again to record a concert in a spacious hall with lots of modern lighting and add some subtitles, they should be able to produce an A+ product than could have world-wide appeal!

[Wonk Bryan Balmer did 95% of the work on this review. He spotted this rare item, bought it, and worked up all the review observations and screenshots. Hank McFadyen contributed 5% by editing.]

Here's a YouTube clip suggesting that the video of this Messiah looks better than the still shots above would indicate:

Available for purchase through the American Bach Soloists website.

Also available with Amazon: