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.
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