Walter Susskind conducts Handel’s Messiah

As the Easter weekend approaches, and soon after that, the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, it seemed to be time for a Messiah recording. This Pye recording from 1958 is announced on the blue folder it was issued in as “Handel’s Messiah – the original manuscript.” This is perhaps misleading – while the performance observes the traditional cuts for the period (with Part III particularly abbreviated), Susskind has removed the two centuries of orchestral accretions to the score, giving us an early attempt at Handel’s original scoring. It’s still very much a mid 20th century account of the work though, with nothing in the way of double-dotting, ornamentation or the fast tempos to which we are now more accustomed.

Handel – Messiah
Pye Golden Guinea GSGL 10062
Matrices GSGL 10062 A-1L, B-2L, C-2L, D-2L, E-1L, F-1L
Recorded 1958
The London Orchestra, Walter Susskind
London Philharmonic Choir
(Choirmaster Frederick Jackson)
April Cantelo,
Helen Watts,
Wilfred Brown,
Roger Stalman,
George Malcolm,
Harold Darke,

Replaced with improved transfer

This set of three stereo LPs (auto coupling) was in rather variable condition, with side 4 being particularly noisy. There are one or two places where the stereo focus drifts. I have corrected occasional pitch variations (in particular at an edit in “But who may abide.”) “The London Orchestra” is so named on the records, and is likely to be the London Philharmonic.

This recording was reviewed in Gramophone in November 1960, and its reissues on Pye’s budget Marble Arch label (both in full and as a single disc of highlights) were reviewed more briefly in February 1966:

Gramophone November 1960

The extent of that most flourishing of all musico-industrial concerns, Handel’s Messiah, may be gauged by the juxtaposition of the five complete casts now available: only one artist (Jennifer Vyvyan) appears in two sets – the Decca and RCA versions. Otherwise, the casts are completely independent. The newest one, which makes its appearance on an inexpensive label, is oddly enough one of the best balanced of all these quartets. The singers are English, and they have been around for many years. Their interpretations of Messiah are known to audiences and congregations all over Britain. Now they make their recorded debut in this taxing oratorio, and the four of them acquit themselves brilliantly.

April Cantelo, whose singing of the soprano arias is splendidly forthright and confident, is more heedful than many of her possibly more flexible sisters to the underlying drama of the text. The upper range of her voice is more than clear: it has a silvery edge to it that she uses with uncommon intelligence, so that even a short passage like “And suddenly there was with the Angel…” remains fixed in the mind as a moment of genuine biblical drama. Her “Rejoice greatly” and “I know that ray Redeemer liveth” are also magnificent and afford ready proof of sheer technique as well as a remarkable control of timbre.

Helen Watts, in her deeply-felt interpretation of “He was despised”, gives what is (for me) the best performance on record. Her voice is rich without being overopulent; it has all the qualities of a fine contralto without any loss of mobility. “O thou that tellest” is beautifully sung, although there are places where individual notes in a run are half-aspirated.

Wilfred Brown adds lustre to the tenor solos in a unique and personal way. The timbre of his voice is neither heroic nor lachrymose, but it has individual qualities that add up to something far more impressive than those. His intonation is rocksteady, and his upward range so well developed that the high notes in “Thou shalt break them” emerge almost effortlessly, whereas one senses strain in the performances of Vickers, Maran and Herbert. Brown’s vivid performance of this aria is one of the most praiseworthy in the entire set, for he sings the words as if he really meant them; indeed, I found myself moving subconsciously a few feet further from the speakers when he arrived at “Thou shalt dash them in pieces”. My equipment, unlike the potter’s vessel, remains happily unharmed but my mental impressions of this aria were almost tactile, and I think that many singers could learn a lot from listening to it. “Every valley” is beautifully phrased and evokes a verdant pastoral picture which Handel was surely aiming at.

Roger Stalman’s fine bass voice is heard to advantage in “But who may abide”. In “The people that walked in darkness” it is again strong and sonorous, though I felt that some variation in timbre might have helped to bring out more vividly the meaning of the words. “Why do the nations”, with all its ferocious roulades, holds no terrors for this singer. He has great powers of sostenuto as well as ample flexibility, but I felt that in “The trumpet shall sound” he fell a little below his own high standard.

The orchestra plays well, the chorus does its best but is often poorly balanced, and Susskind seems to have little idea of Handelian style.

The stereo version improves the chorus balance to some extent, but accentuates the heaviness of the orchestral basses. Those who benefit most are the four soloists.

Gramophone February 1966

First the single disc of selections. Two months back I was writing about a similar record issued by Saga for half a crown less. The contralto and bass soloists were the same, and so were the orchestra and chorus, and the conductor was Frederick Jackson. Both discs are astonishingly good value. The Susskind one under review offers the more conventional selection in the more conventional performance. This tends to be in the beefy old-fashioned style, whereas the Jackson is a little more ‘musicological’. But there is not all that difference, and both are good of their kind. I prefer Susskind’s tenor, as also his soprano; the solo singing is extremely and consistently good. Against this is the fact that you can’t get the Susskind in stereo, and you can the Jackson.

But if you want the Susskind, there does seem every reason to go a splash (it’s a very tiny one) and get the lot for 30s. Well, not actually every item. As so often where Messiah is concerned, the word ‘complete’ means that the lesser-known numbers are left out; you hear what you normally hear in the concert hall. I mustn’t enthuse too much about this enjoyable performance. The choral singing is nothing like as good as it is on the new Klemperer discs (and the “Amen” chorus at the end is taken much too slowly) but the Klemperer discs do cost nearly four times as much.