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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Der Messias (sung in English) arr. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756Ė1791) (1742/1788) [126.56]
Felicity Lott (soprano)
Felicity Palmer (contralto)
Philip Langridge (tenor)
Robert Lloyd (bass)
Huddersfield Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. 1-5 January 1988, Henry Wood Hall, London. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD074 [56.56 + 70.01]

 



When Glyndebourne Opera decided to perform Cavalliís operas in the 1960s they employed Raymond Leppard to produce editions which filled out the orchestration and adapted them to modern taste. At that period the scores of Monteverdi and Cavalli operas were regarded as too sparse to perform in the original. Perhaps at some future period these adaptations will be dug out and performed as historical items, showing how the 1960s viewed Cavalli and Monteverdi.

When Baron Van Swieten and his Society of Associated Cavaliers wanted to perform the works of Handel in Vienna in the late 1780s, they employed Mozart to produce an edition to adapt them to contemporary taste. Handelís orchestrations, with their dependence on strong bass lines and top lines filled in with harpsichord, must have seemed rather stark to Mozartian Vienna. Also, Handelís use of organ continuo in the choral numbers would have caused problems. So Mozart produced added wind parts. He had Handelís vocal lines and string parts copied into a new score and then added wind. They used a German translation of the English text. These were not the only changes, some solos were re-allocated to a different voice part and ĎThe Trumpet shall soundí was extensively re-written because the baroque art of high trumpet playing was something foreign to 1780s Vienna. The result is a fascinating snapshot of one great composerís view of another.

There are, perhaps, three reasons for deciding to perform Mozartís arrangement of Messiah. The first is to gain an insight into the workings of Mozartís mind and to hear what how he clothes the Handelian orchestra in his own wind elaborations. Secondly, a large choir might be uncomfortable singing with a Handelian orchestra and feel that the weight of the choir needs the fullness of Mozartís orchestration. The third is adherence to lazy tradition, because people are uncomfortable with Handelís own sound-world.

I raise this question because this recording of the Handel/Mozart version, made in 1988, makes some editorial decisions that make us question their rationale for performing the work. As an aside, we should note that 1988 was the year that Trevor Pinnockís Messiah was recorded. This was the recording of Messiah which aimed, very successfully, to use period performance to re-invigorate the traditional edition.

For their recording, Mackerras and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra opted to use Mozartís orchestrations. But they reverted to Handelís original English, transposed Mozartís changed solo numbers back to the familiar Handelian voice allocations, re-instated the very unViennese high trumpet part in ĎThe trumpet shall soundí and added a harpsichord continuo, which tinkles away throughout. Mozart probably did use a continuo, but he would have used a piano; continuo had become far less important. After all we rarely perform his symphonies with continuo.

The result of all these decisions is to make one feel that the intention of this recording was not to explore Mozartís view of Handel, but simply to make available a traditional performance of Messiah with all the bells and whistles. They could just as well have used Ebenezer Proutís additional accompaniments; using Mozart somehow sanctions the change.

I apologise if this sounds a little too purist, but this is one area where Iím with Mahler in regarding tradition as schlamperei. If we want to perform the Handel/Mozart Der Messias or even the Handel/Prout Messiah letís do so, but letís do it properly and not simply take the bits from it that we like and reject those we either donít like or are not used to.

That said, this is a ripping good performance. Mackerras has a fine group of soloists who have a good knowledge of Handelian style. Mackerrasís speeds are just right for his forces and the choruses sound fast when they ought to but never rushed. The Huddersfield Choral Society are on pretty good form and the faster passages come over with decent clarity. Philip Langridge sounds a little too operatic for my taste, too big toned; but he undoubtedly does know how to find his way around the score. Felicity Lott is radiant and spins a wonderfully fine vocal line. Felicity Palmer sounds a little Ďmumsyí in her opening solo, but ĎHe was despisedí (done with its da capo) is as warm and passionate as you could want. Robert Lloyd does wonders at getting his dark bass voice round the Handelian fioriture. The soloists discreetly ornament where necessary, though I think they use pretty standard baroque ornamentation rather than something more 18th century.

Of course, another point to bear in mind is that singing in this orchestration the singers need to have bigger voices than when using Handelís own version. The wind are omnipresent in the arias and so the soloists require more power. There is an interesting tale told about John Barbirolli and Kathleen Ferrier. She was singing the alto solos in Messiah at the Hallť and complained to Barbirolli that one of the solos (possibly ĎHe was despisedí) was so tiring. Barbirolli realised that sheíd possibly never sung it in Handelís version and omitted all the added parts, the result transformed her account of the aria.

Mackerras uses the traditional cuts so that part 2 loses four items and part 3 loses four items. The disc comes with an interesting essay that explains the Mozartian background of the work and makes it clear what editorial decisions were made, so that we know what we are hearing. There is also a libretto.

The main delight of this recording, though, is to be found in Mozartís wind parts. They gloriously burble along, commenting on Handelís score almost as if we were eavesdropping on Mozart himself as he read the score and made comments. For a committed baroque idealist this is something of a guilty pleasure, akin to adding whipped cream to a dessert which does not really need it.

There is a lot of work to be done on performance practice in Mozartís version of Messiah. It would be interesting if a period performance ensemble would take it in hand and give us an ur-Messias, complete with forte-piano continuo and ornamentation in contemporary Viennese style.

If you want a traditional Messiah with added wind parts, then you cannot go wrong with this one. It has the added advantage of having Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm and a group of soloists who, even in 1988, would have been unlikely to record the work with a period practice group. For enthusiasts of Handelís own Messiah I recommend at least one recording of the Mozart orchestration, as a guilty pleasure for solitary listening.

Robert Hugill

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