Chicago’s Apollo Chorus records Handel’s Messiah

Category: Music

Today I found the time to listen to a recording that The Apollo Chorus of Chicago did last Christmas – The Complete Handel Messiah. This 2-disc CD was given to me by my sister on a recent visit to Chicago and she was quite proud of it. She has been fortunate to be part of the chorus for a number of years and she was one of the people in charge of raising the capital needed to make this recording and the event possible. Between the soloist, recording, and orchestra fees, this CD cost over $35,000 to produce and the last I knew, they had not yet recouped their investment.

Many of you in Chicago already know that this chorus is the oldest all-volunteer chorus in the nation. They require tryouts each year to fill the 150 male and female roster. Founded in 1872 after the Great Chicago Fire it is one of the city’s most exciting and talked-about musical organizations. If you have ever attended one of their concerts, you can attest to their talent, powerful presentation, and incredible performances. These qualities have transferred well to the CD.

Being one that is generally not interested in “home brew” recordings, this one took me by surprise. This one was done by veteran Clarion Records and they captured the majesty of this choir and brilliance of this Handel masterpiece. Many movements had me close to tears. The recording is very open and detailed and it is now one of my reference classical selections.

If you live in the Chicago area, get to your local music store a pick up a copy of this. Anyone else can order one from the website:
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My usual gripe about Messiah recordings is that the articulation of the voices is drowned by the Orchestra during the big Choruses. This recording favors the singers to the extent that even during the loudest sections one can hear the individual voices. Some may wish for the microphones to have been placed a bit back for a more blended sound, but I for one like to hear the Chorus for a change.
I must admit that my favorite Messiah is the Beecham recording from 1959. The LP issue is stereo but was cut at too low a level, and was noisy, but the CD reissue is greatly improved, and responds well to 3-channel or multichannel playback. Sometimes derided as the "big band" Messiah, the CD set is accompanied by an essay by Beecham explaining his interpretation of Messiah. It's worth buying the CD set just to get this essay. Very well thought out.

In Handel's time Messiah was performed in many versions, often with an ad hoc orchestra consisting of whatever musicians were available. Meanwhile the chorus swelled to as many as 3500 voices! Over time the chorus was shrunk down to a more reasonable size, but most performances stuck with the "authentic" small orchestra and simple orchestration. Beecham points out that the development of the symphony orchestra has accustomed the ear to a richer and more varied sound than can be delivered through voice alone, and it has become tedious to listen to people singing for an hour and a half. Beecham's Messiah uses expanded orchestration by Sir Eugene Goossens and an orchestra of about 150. The soloists are world class..Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers, Giorgio Tozzi. I have heard many performances of Messiah, and while I always enjoy them, even the little version put on by a local church, I always have to go home and put on Beecham. Whatever your preference for Messiah performances, you ought to have the Beecham as a reference. It is a milestone in the history of this composition.