I’ve enjoyed many performances of “Messiah” in person, on CD, and on video, and have also sung bass in my fair share of student, community, and semi-professional performances of Handel’s most famous oratorio. One of my personal favorites has always been a concert by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, with Sylvia McNair as the radiant soprano soloist.
The late 1980’s performance was broadcast on PBS and subsequently released on VHS; unfortunately, it was never re-released on DVD, and the concert is now out of print. The closest you can get these days is a CD set of “Messiah” that Mr. Shaw conducted with a slightly different cast of soloists; it is quite good, but the soprano solos are split between Ms. MsNair and Kaaren Erickson, and therefore less satisfying. Ms. McNair collaborated with Sir Neville Marriner on another recording of “Messiah” (still available on DVD) which features some excellent choral work, but is also kinda quirky: mezzo-soprano solos split with a counter-tenor; the famous soprano air, “Rejoice, greatly” sung in 12/8 instead of the much more typical 4/4 (as I prefer it).
Speaking of “Rejoice, greatly” . . . a clip of Ms. McNair singing it from that Shaw/ASO video used to be available on YouTube, but alas, has been taken down. That’s a shame because it is by far my favorite version. Ms. McNair absolutely attacks the coloratura runs with grace and precision, and her tone is impressively pure in the slower middle part, especially in the first line, “He is the righteous savior.” It is simultaneously period appropriate yet thoroughly modern. A very similar performance is on CD, but I like the video version better.
So instead, enjoy this video of the Pifa (abridged version), soprano recitatives and airs beginning with “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” through the choral “Glory to God in the highest.” Not surprisingly, the Atlanta Symphony Chorus sounds great. Moreover, it is another steller turn by Ms. McNair, perhaps second only to the incomparable recitation by Linus (circa 1965).
One last thing: In the video from the Atlanta Symphony performance, the Pifa opens with a shot of the first stand of violins. In case you don’t recognize them, the concertmaster is Bill Preucil, currently Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. Sitting next to him is Martin Chalifour, currently Principal Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.