Whenever Wilhelm Furtwängler performed Beethoven's 9th, he would throw the finale (the "Seid umschlungen, Millionen..." recapitulation) into a mad tumble. In fact, one gets the sense that the orchestra is holding onto itself, but not by much - and lesser ensembles like the Bayreuther band in '51 don't give one much of that sense. Yes, I am going somewhere with this.
I bought the William Christie and Les Arts Florissants recording of Messiah. I have been on a Baroque kick lately, and I do love this quintessentially English work (despite the fact that it was written by a German). It is a very, very good recording - as is well-known. In fact, I am afraid that this recording will replace Pinnock as my new favorite. A great cast (is there anything Andreas Scholl can't do?), a great band, and a reasonable HIP sensibility contribute to a very sound set.
However, the "Hallelujah" chorus is my point, and my tie-in back to Furtwängler. This is done so fast, and so exuberantly, that one isn't sure upon a first audition that it can sustain itself. Everything is so taut and tightly wound that it seemingly explodes. When the chorus hits the big "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," (d.2; 2:47) it has a feeling that there is actual release and catharsis. While Hogwood, Gardiner, and Pinnock all sort of attack it as though it were already in progress, and Harnoncourt sort of builds up to it, Christie wraps the band ever tighter around his idea, and then lets them explode into the moment.
That is drama. That is what keeps Messiah from being a weird Anglo-Saxon Christmas ritual. Not that the HIP crowd ever gives that sense, but there are only so many times that one can sing that piece without it becoming an odd, and somewhat-stale, ritual.