Anyone from outside the English-speaking world who visits a London concert hall in the run-up to Christmas could be forgiven for thinking British music-lovers had succumbed to Messiah madness.
They do things differently in German-speaking Europe, where the “English” Handel has never been accepted and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio takes precedence at Advent. When German-language choirs do tackle Messiah, it is invariably in Mozart’s un-Handelian arrangement.
If English choral tradition has turned Messiah into a hardy (not to say hackneyed) annual, that should not blind us to the work’s exceptional qualities – as a piece of music, yes, but also as a statement of faith, an aspect that eludes many performances on CD as in concert.
Handel’s claim to have seen “all Heaven before me, and the Great God Himself” during his 22-day burst of composition was either a businessman-composer’s hyperbole or a manifesto for Messiah’s extraordinary spiritual aura. I’ll go with the latter. You don’t need to be a believer to be inspired by his setting of mainly Old Testament prophecies, but the true test is whether the performers convince you that they believe in it.
Listen to Heddle Nash singing “Comfort Ye”, the oratorio’s opening words, in his 1947 recording under Sir Thomas Beecham. Through the crackly sound you will hear the greatest example of Messiah-singing on record – soul-searching anguish and consoling credo in the same breath. This is the second and most expensive of Beecham’s three Messiah recordings, and easily the best.
Given that Handel himself performed it in different ways, no single interpretation can claim the whole truth. While this adds to Messiah’s fascination, it means that every recording is a compromise of one sort or the other. Older versions tend to be more faithful to the spirit than to the letter. With modern versions, it’s the other way round. In his 1946 and 1959 recordings, Sir Malcolm Sargent tinkers with the orchestration, and the 1946 version omits certain numbers, but you can’t fault the conviction of the 100-strong choruses or Sargent’s broad, majestic tempi. Isobel Baillie’s “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth” (1946 version) has never been surpassed on record. Both sets are available at bargain price.
A useful halfway house between traditional and modern styles is the young Colin Davis’s 1966 studio version on Philips, which has excellent soloists and a professional chorus. The sound and performance stand up remarkably well after nearly half a century. Davis’s recent LSO Live version pales by comparison.
Venture into the era of period instruments and you face all sorts of difficult choices. Sopranos or boy trebles? Tenor or countertenor? The Foundling Hospital version, aiming to recreate the sort of performance Handel supervised there in 1754 (Paul McCreesh, fast but not inexpressive), or a “standard” 1741-43 text, whatever that means? Handel made changes based on the singers and players available, and every interpreter faces a mass of choices.
Performances to be avoided are those parading their “authenticity” in dry, inflexible interpretations, as if Messiah were nothing more than a demonstration of Baroque performance practice. At the other extreme is the eccentric brigade. Nikolaus Harnoncourt takes “Unto us a Child is Born” at a deadening tempo – a pity, as Gerald Finley sounds magnificent in the bass arias and the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus is extremely fine. René Jacobs’ version is typically over-dramatised, and it’s left to the crystal-clear Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, to make amends, plus a solo team led by Kerstin Avemo’s soprano and Lawrence Zazzo’s countertenor.
The recordings conducted by Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner and Masaaki Suzuki – the latter showing the same flexibility of tempo and stylistic assurance as in his superb renditions of the Bach Passions – have many individual merits, not least Arleen Auger (Pinnock) and Margaret Marshall (Gardiner) in “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth”, and the beautiful sound of Yoshikazu Mera’s male alto in “He Was Despised” (Suzuki).
My favourite historically informed set is Christopher Hogwood – the 1980 CD version, not the later DVD remake. The chorus is the Choir of Christ Church, Oxford, using mostly boy trebles and altos, and young men for the tenors and basses. “Unto us a Child is Born” and the “Hallelujah” chorus combine verve and splendour, and the soloists, led by Emma Kirkby in her prime, are top-notch.
The danger is that you settle into a groove with the recording you grew up with. Messiah is a work of such magnitude that no single approach can do it justice.
This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.
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