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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
An Introduction to Handel’s Messiah
A listener’s guide in words and music presented by Graham Abbott
Musical examples taken from recordings conducted by Antony Walker, Charles Mackerras, Henry Wood, Malcolm Sargent and Thomas Beecham.
ABC CLASSICS 476 289-0 [3 CDs: 53:42 + 52:45 + 53:11]



This 3-CD set is essentially three 50 minute radio programmes broadcast as part of the Australian ABC Classic FM series called Keys to Music. After a brief introduction from which it emerges that the librettist, Charles Jennens, did not think much of the music Handel set to his words, Graham Abbott takes us through the whole work in a logical and detailed manner. He focuses both on the text and music and there are extensive examples from Antony Walker’s fairly recent recording with the Orchestra of the Antipodes on period instruments (ABC Classics 472 601-2). At a rough guess, about two-thirds of the work is heard during the course of the first two and half discs. Abbott is an Australian conductor and educator with extensive experience of performing the work. He presents well and sounds authoritative. Along the way we hear of some of the many changes that Handel made for particular performances and get an idea of some of the decisions a conductor needs to make in performing the work today. A message that comes across clearly is that it was not possible in England (unlike in Germany) at the time the work was written (1741) for an individual to portray Jesus – hence the use of the third person in the text. Another interesting point raised is the origin of the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus, which seems to be uncertain but dates right back to Handel’s time. It is roundly condemned by Abbott as a nuisance to the performers.

These discs arrived for review the day after I had listened to the work in the 1966 recording conducted by Colin Davis (a modern instrument version with moderate sized forces). By the side of that Antony Walker’s reading sounded a little lightweight but there are good vocal contributions, notably from soprano Sara Macliver and the Australian chorus Cantillation. By the end I felt a little frustrated not to have heard the whole performance. I also was increasingly irritated by the use of voice-overs during most purely orchestral passages. Credits are left in at the end of each disc, perhaps unnecessarily when there is a booklet. In a three disc set, it should have been possible to include a complete performance and most (if not all) of the spoken introduction separately, thereby creating something that one might want to listen to more than once.

Whilst listening to the first two and half discs, I looked forward with anticipation to the historic performances listed for the final few tracks. The potential interest of these is undeniable – Mackerras in Mozart’s version, Henry Wood conducting an orchestra of 500 plus 3000 singers at Crystal Palace in 1926, Sargent in 1946 with the Huddersfield Choral Society and, finally, Beecham. I had looked at the booklet and was disappointed at the apparent brevity of these excerpts but this feeling melted away when I listened to them. Graham Abbott’s commentary on them is critical of their assumed “bigger is better” basis and I found it hard to disagree. By the side of Walker they all sounded overblown and most gross of all was Beecham’s 1959 Hallelujah chorus. In the Crystal Palace recording there was even some lukewarm applause after “And the glory of the Lord”, and the sound quality of that track is stunningly terrible.

This set does what it says on the label well and, if you are in need, is a good introduction to the Messiah. But a complete set will be required as well, of which there are plenty available. On modern instruments Colin Davis conducts an excellent bargain version (Philips Duo 438 365-2) and there are now several well-received period performances. Regarding the large-scale historic performances, these are a matter of taste but I am afraid that they may no longer seem to be in good taste.

Patrick C Waller 


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