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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Only the Purest Sound? by Arthur Butterworth

ALTHOUGH the very earliest musical experience came to me as a cherubic and (probably) innocent choirboy, I cannot claim ever to have had much of an interest in the vocal arts overall. The common expression 'musicians and singers' has always seemed to me to have had a grain of truth in it - the implication being that musicians (instrumentalists, of course) are a cut above mere singers (who are notoriously inept at following a beat, unable to count rests or pitch notes unaided, and guilty of other shortcomings. . . well, that's how players more often than not regard them, is it not?). At any rate, on the whole involvement in choral music has not come my way very often - and opera I've avoided like the p1ague1 often thinking it would be far better if they just left it to the orchestra and did not allow all those over-emotional, noisy singers to bawl their heads off in grossly hyperbolic fashion, mouthing words one can never actually hear them articulate.

However, one cannot get away from fact of musical life: singers seem here to stay, whether in the liturgy of the fifteenth century, the glories of the English cathedral, Italian or Wagnerian opera, the art song, the moronic howlings of the disco or those most-ingrained facets of English socio-musical life - musical comedy and oratorio. One of my earliest - even traumatic - experiences of Messiah was being invited, at the age of 15, to play the trumpet in an unrehearsed, ad hoc performance (for which no one had warned me the orchestral trumpeters are expected to transpose and play at sight as a matter of everyday routine). So what can possibly still be said about this one musical work that even the most musically-illiterate football or bingo addict claims to have heard of and - often at Christmas time - gets all sentimental about?

Commentators of every kind - intellectuals, journalists on local newspapers, university professors in fashionable social studies, historians, musicologists, talks editors for the BBC - have written about Messiah. Not all that many years ago the interval during the annual BBC relay of Messiah (from Huddersfield, as often as not - where else?) was invariably devoted to a 'feature' about the work, usually recounting things that everyone had heard scores of times before.

It has fallen to my lot to have played in dozens of performances of this imperishable masterpiece, earning a small fortune in playing the trumpet obligato (as the present generation of enterprising trumpeters still does). Some of these performances have been absolutely disastrous, many others completely unremarkable, some memorable indeed, and just a few among the outstanding musical events of a lifetime.

Singers, and indeed instrumentalists too, will have noticed a change in the performing tradition of Messiah over a generation or so. The first performance I took part in (or, more strictly, only tried to take part in) had a very ad hoc band of Manchester theatre-players: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, some strings and a decrepit Sunday-school piano. The first professional performance I heard was given by the Hallé Choir and Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent. This, in Mozart's additional scoring ('improved' by Prout) had further instrumental accretions in the way of horns, trumpets, trombones and timpani by Sargent himself; but for years afterwards I thought this must have been Handel's original. This was the way it was usually done for the first half of the 20th century: it was only in the 1950s or thereabouts that a new musical 'purity' was introduced. This was a kind of musical 'political correctness' that for better or worse has come to improve or blight, according to your own leanings, the way we perceive musical works from earlier periods of history.

NOT just Messiah, of course - all manner of earlier musical works had been subject to a kind of updating: Bach's keyboard works, for instance, played on the modern concert grand piano, producing a sound totally different in character from that of the harpsichord and other delicate baroque keyboards; or string music such as Bach's Sixth Brandenberg Concerto originally intended for a very small ensemble - two violas, two viola da gambas, violoncello, violone (ie double bass) and cembalo (harpsichord) - played at the 1938 Henry Wood Proms by all twelve violas, twelve cellos, and ten double basses of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Such things are not done nowadays - we have come round to a more historically accurate way of performing baroque and other early music: the so-called 'authentic' movement. Choral singers especially are aware of this new attitude towards the performance of 'early' music. The huge choral forces of 25 or 30 years ago have tended to give way to slimmed-down choirs of greater flexibility (and, it must be said, generally enhanced technical ability many older singers whose technical standards have not kept pace with increased demands on vocal technique and overall musicianship have been retired). The other outcome has been an economic one: a large choral society which once had to employ a full symphony orchestra can now justifiably engage a relatively small chamber orchestra at much less cost.


A Bach Brandenburg Concerto, originally intended for a very small ensemble, played at the 1938 Henry Wood Proms by 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 10 double basses

For all the musicological justification for such 'purer' realisations of early music, however, there has often crept into such performances a kind of cool, clinical element, often diminishing the music's impact by a degree of academicism that, while being technically impeccable, can leave the listener emotionally unmoved. It is as if the too-correct performers were afraid (or ashamed?) of allowing themselves any sense of imagination or emotional - as distinct from intellectual -involvement in what they are performing. While on the whole I am inclined to go along with the new attitude towards historical accuracy, believing that the old masters knew what they were doing, and that for us to understand and appreciate properly what they are communicating to us, even in these later centuries, we need to recreate their music as they themselves intended it to be heard, there are nevertheless occasions that can take one by surprise. Such was a performance of Messiah I heard last December on radio. Had this been one of the young whizz-kid academic conductors from Oxford or Cambridge with an oh-so-slick choir and period instruments, I would not have even bothered to turn on the radio ('not Messiah again!', I might have said to myself), but this performance was of the 1959 recording by Sir Thomas Beecham. Not for Beecham all the politically-correct musical purists: he dismissed all such intellectuals as being too-clever-by-half. ('A musicologist', he once said, 'is a man who can read music but can't hear it.') His performance was avowedly - and, one suspects, proudly - reactionary. Not only had he updated Handel, he had updated Prout and Sargent too! He had persuaded that great contemporary of his, Sir Eugene Goossens, to rescore the whole thing for large - really large - modern orchestra, including harp and cor anglais (this latter used most tellingly, evoking the pathos of a Bach aria).

'Oh horror!', the purists will have cried: 'What sacrilege!' Well, it could have been; but to my mind, it wasn't. I have come to the stage where generally I would no longer ever dream of attending a public performance or listening to a radio relay of Messiah; over the years it has come to bore me stiff. But this performance of Beecham's - musically so unauthentic - was an absolute tour de force deeply moving and compelling in a way it has not seemed to me for many years. It had Beecham's peculiar quirks: overall, an unexpectedly slow tempo (apart from Hallelujah, which was outrageously fact); but the great advantage of this profound slowness was that the singers' diction was impeccable; more than that, the music's deep meaning seemed to strike me with an emotional power that I had - perhaps never - really heard before. For all the sophisticated cleverness of the cohorts of modern musical academia, few have come so close to the heart of this great masterpiece as did Beecham - a maverick in so many respects, perhaps, but no mere dry (if 'correct' academic): just a musical artist of genius.

1I share the author's indifference to opera. I once slept through the entire second act of Wagner's Gotterdammerung and I've often thought that the solution to inescapable Wagner tedium would be to put the orchestra on the stage and the singers in the pit (Adrian Smith -Editor)

This article first appeared in the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Journal June 2000


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