Messiah is by no means typical of Handel’s oratorios.
It was one of two that were premiered outside London. Athalia was first aired
in Oxford and Messiah in Dublin. Because of the exigencies
of the Dublin premiere, Handel wrote it for a generic cast
of four soloists (SATB), rather than designing solo parts
for specific singers; when writing the oratorio he probably
did not know who his soloists were to be.
It is about the only one of his works where the standard
performing version is based on Handel’s later revisions.
Handel was an inveterate reviser; each revival of a work
was different, customised to the particular cast. Quite often
the revised versions are inferior to the original. But Messiah received
annual performances by Handel’s ensemble as a charity concert
for the Foundling Hospital. These concerts not only went
a long way to reviving Handel’s popularity, but also helped
make Messiah the icon that it is today. Though Handel
tinkered with Messiah for each performance, these
annual outings seem to have enabled the work to settle down
into something like a standard form.
Though it was written for just four soloists, in 1750
the alto Castrato Guadagni joined Handel’s ensemble and Handel
adapted the work to include him. This did not mean jettisoning
his contralto. Handel created an extra solo part and kept
the female contralto for singing such key moments as ‘He
was despised’. The versions of ‘Thou art gone up on high’, ‘How
beautiful are the feet’ and ‘But who may abide’ which were
written for Guadagni became the standard versions of these
arias. It is this 1750s version of the work which formed
the basis for Trevor Pinnock’s 1988 recording of Messiah,
though Pinnock uses the soprano ‘How beautiful are the feet’ rather
than the alto one.
This performance does not seek to be cutting-edge instead
Pinnock uses his relatively large period forces to revitalise
the traditional view of Messiah. So speeds are not
controversial. He was despised is taken as a pretty
slow pace. But the use of period forces means that the faster
movements can achieve quite a speed without ever seeming
rushed. This sort of revitalised traditional performance
was rather cutting-edge in 1988, when period performances
of Messiah tended to take a very particular point
Pinnock was also in advance of his peers when it came
to selecting his soloists. Nowadays we are used to young
opera singers moving between the modern opera house and period
performance. This was more unusual in 1988 when singers tended
to be more specialised. So Pinnock’s cast, with three opera
singers, was hardly standard period performance practice
for the 1980s. All three singers, Arleen Augér, Anne Sofie
von Otter and John Tomlinson have experience in both period
and modern performance practice.
Augér is pretty much an
ideal soprano soloist, radiant with a lovely line, her diction
is also pretty impressive. Von Otter is more of an acquired
taste. There is no doubt about the fine musicality of her
performance, the dignity of her tone and suppleness of her
phrasing. But there is a little coolness there as well; this
was something that was particularly notable in her noble
performance of ‘He was despised’. Many people will find this
performance admirable, but I kept longing for that touch
of warmth that a singer like Janet Baker brought to the role.
Michael Chance makes a fine contribution singing the alto
arias Handel created for Guadagni, but I thought that he
could have risked being a bit showier at times.
Howard Crook makes an impressive tenor soloist. Better
known, to me at least, as an haut-contre in the French Baroque
repertoire, his instrument has the power and flexibility
needed to bring off Handel’s tenor part.
The year that this recording was made, John Tomlinson
made his debut as Wotan. Tomlinson has had extensive experience
singing this repertoire and his recording of Handel’s Hercules with
John Eliot Gardiner remains one of my favourites. But it
is nonetheless impressive that he managed to run his Wagnerian
and Baroque careers in tandem. There is something old-fashioned
and swaggering about Tomlinson’s performance; it is highly
theatrical and rather endearing. His command of Handelian fioriture remained
impressive, even if not entirely clean. All the singers ornament
discreetly, which is entirely appropriate.
The choral contribution from the English Concert Choir
was impressive and their fleetness of articulation admirable.
They number some 32 singers, all adults with a mixture of
men and women on the alto part, so they achieve impressive
moments of power in the bigger movements. But I missed an
element of bite in the choral tone. This isn’t a big/small
thing; both large choirs and small ones can develop this
sort of attack, but the English Concert Choir goes for a
smoother, blended effect.
Though modern in tone, this is not a bloodless Messiah;
in fact it is quite stirring at times. The combination of
Tomlinson and Michael Laird’s trumpet in ‘The Trumpet shall
sound’ is quite brilliant and the bigger moments, such as
the Hallelujah Chorus, certainly don’t leave you wishing
for a bigger, more old-fashioned performance.
Pinnock has taken care with the balance of his forces,
so the 32-person choir is accompanied by a 37-person orchestra,
including four oboes and two bassoons. This gives the sort
of balance of tone that is so necessary in Handel. The performance
from the English Concert is wonderfully confident and crisp,
full-blooded, fine-toned without being prissy.
The set comes on two well-filled CDs in the Deutsche
Grammophon ‘The Originals Series’ and includes a full libretto.
You can’t go wrong in choosing this Messiah.
You might decide to have a Messiah which takes more
risks or one, like Hogwood’s, which takes a more purist view
as to the edition used. The Scholars’ recording of Handel’s
original should be essential listening for everyone. But
Pinnock’s version should have a firm place at the centre
of the library shelves.