John P. Katsantonis


North America Music Critics Name their Favorite
Versions of Handel’s “Messiah”

On April 13th Handel’s masterwork – first performed in Dublin, Ireland – turns 265 years old.

A work that Beethoven once copied by hand, note for note, “just to get the feeling of its intricacies and to unravel its complexities," George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah” is 265 years old, this Friday April 13, 2007.

Recognizing the popularity of this Christian-holiday favorite, Music Academy Online ( began surveying members of the Music Critics Association of America (MCANA) last December. Since these and more than 800 other recorded versions of Handel’s “Messiah” are available at alone, MAO conducted this survey, to help novice classical music lovers learn which are the most critically acclaimed.

Currently, with 23% of the MCANA membership responding, the clear favorite is a 1980 recording conducted by Christopher Hogwood, with soloists Emma Kirkby, Judith Nelson, Carolyn Watkinson, Paul Elliott and David Thomas. The orchestra is The Academy of Ancient Music, and the CD version was released on October 10, 1991 on Decca/L'Oiseau-Lyre.

Additionally, several versions have tied for second place among the U.S. and Canadian critics, with an equal number of votes. They include the following:

  • EMI’s 1990 CD release with Andrew Davis conducting the Toronto Symphony and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, with featured soloists Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar, John Aler, and Samuel Ramey.
  • The 1966 recording released on CD by Phillips in 1993, performed by London Symphony Orchestra with soloists Helen Watts, Heather Harper, Ralph Downes, John Shirley-Quirk, Leslie Pearson, John Wakefield and William Lang, conducted by Sir Collin Davis and John Alldis.
  • Two Robert Shaw Orchestra versions: one with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chamber Choir (Telarc CD-80093) and a remastered 2004 version with soloists Richard Lewis, Thomas Paul, Judith Raskin, Florence Kopleff, Robert Conant and Robert Arnold, with James Smith on trumpet, on RCA/Red Seal.
  • The 1976 recording conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, released by Decca on CD in 1995 (based on the first London performances of the "Messiah'' in 1743, not its final 1751 version), performed by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra, with soloists Philip Langridge, Anna Reynolds, Gwynne Howell, and Elly Ameling.
  • Two versions conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1996 version on ASV, 2006 version on Signum UK), both featuring Felicity Lott, Robert Lloyd, and Phillip Langridge.

Interestingly, too, while many consider Handel’s “Messiah” to be “sacred music,” there are those who responded, among the North American critics, who probably could live their lives happily never hearing the strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus” ever again.

Principal among those is self-described “Messiah Scrooge” Wes Blomster. A retired University of Colorado professor of German, now a freelance writer living in Boulder, Blomster writes, “My favorite version of Handel's ‘Messiah’ is the Bach Christmas Oratorio. The hegemony of Handel at this time of year turns me into a near-violent Anglophobe. I used to make a practice of spending the holidays in Berlin, just to avoid the ‘Messiah.’” Similar preferences stated by other critics include Beethoven’s “Mass in C,” the Mozart C Minor Mass, and Haydn’s “Seasons,” as well as contemporary compositions, such as John Adams's “El Niño” and Phil Kline's “Unsilent Night.”

It should be noted that Handel exerted considerable influence on Beethoven at various stages of his career. With this transcription of Handel's vocal fugue "And With His Stripes" from The Messiah, Beethoven sought to learn from the older composers fuguel techniques. Many of Beethoven's fugues are strongly influenced by Handel, with their long, sectional themes and their occasional unconventional procedures.

Beethoven was reputed to have picked up Handel's Messiah with these words, "Here is a different fellow" and proceeded to play the most interesting looking passages. On another occasion he is said to have remarked, "Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived", and spoke of the oratorio as having "sublimity of language". The music of Messiah so permeated Beethoven's being that on his deathbed he is reputed to have quoted from The Messiah stating that if there were a physician that could help him "His name shall be called Wonderful.”

Complete survey results are available from Music Academy Online founder/president David Schwartz, Ph D., at The survey, first of its kind conducted by MAO, is part of its ongoing mission — to bring together musicians, scholars, educators, orchestras, ensembles, academia and other institutions, and vendors — created to provide music lovers a unique online environment that fosters and cultivates appreciation for music. To learn more, visit

The purpose of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) is to act as an educational medium for the promotion of high standards of music criticism in the press of the Americas, to hold meetings in which self-criticism and exchange of ideas will promote educational opportunities, and to increase general interest in the growing culture of the
Americas. MCANA is a member of the National Music Council, which was formed in 1940 to provide a forum for the discussion of the country's national music affairs, to act as a clearing house for the joint operation and decisions of its members, and to work as a force to strengthen the importance of music in our society and culture. The Council has a membership of 50 national music organizations encompassing every form of professional and commercial music activity. To learn more, please visit