There have been performance practice changes over the years. For a time Mozart's reorchestration for larger orchestra held sway as did ever larger choruses, numbering well over 100 voices in many cases. There is also a Beecham orchestration for a full-blown ensemble of romantic proportions. There are still those who perform the altered versions and I see nothing to complain of there. It can be devastatingly moving. On the other hand there is a growing trend away from all that to the original version with original instruments and orchestration, with a chorus of 30 or so and soloists.
Enter Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, who are celebrating their bicentennial in 2015. They gave the first US performance of Handel's Messiah in 1818, consequently performing it annually from 1854 to the present day! Harry Christophers and the Society give us this season a brand new performance with the original version, complete with all the performing conventions and practices as Handel and his era assumed, in the smaller orchestration and a choir of thirty or so. Soloists include a countertenor in place of the usual mezzo-soprano, which gives us another perspective as well.
All this can be heard and appreciated on a 2-CD set just out (CORO 16125). The more compact forces lead to a more intimate impression. The chorus excels in the brisk pace Christophers gives many of the movements. The singers dive into the melismatic (multiple notes for a single syllable) passages with vigor and they project wonderfully. The soloists are up to the music in every way, though I have been spoiled by a recording that features the great Peter Lewis as tenor. But that recording is a romantic-sized rendition with a very different charm. The soloists here do a fine job anyway, though they may fall just a tad shy of the very greatest historically. One cannot expect everything in a single performance so it is not an issue.
The celebratory new Handel and Haydn Society version achieves the glory and power of the work with the lesser forces. I have not heard a more moving "Hallelujah" chorus. Their "Amen" is a thing to give you the chills. In fact the entire second part of the work glows with energy and conviction, not to say that the first part is lacking. It is a Messiah that builds to a wonderful climax.
If you don't have a period version, this one would make a fine addition to your library. If you don't know the Messiah this is a good place to start!
It is in every way a commanding performance! Happy 200th birthday to the Handel and Haydn Society.