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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (Dublin version, 1742) [140:05]
Susan Hamilton (soprano)
Annie Gill, Claire Wilkinson (contraltos)
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass)
Dunedin Consort and Players/John Butt
rec. Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 1-4 May 2006. DDD
LINN RECORDS CKD 285 [76:37 + 63:28]

 



One benefit of historically informed performance which is now the norm for Handel’s Messiah is awareness that there’s no such thing as a standard, let alone definitive, version. Rather Handel regarded it as a body of work to be regenerated for the particular circumstances of every new performance. The goal remains a convincing spiritual experience, only the means differ. In Handel’s lifetime there were around ten versions providing in total differences in 18 of its 53 ‘numbers’. But, put it another way, two-thirds of the work remains constant.

Concentrating on recreating a particular version, however, gives a recording a scholarly distinctiveness and a good excuse to add to your collection. Particularly in the case of this Dublin version from 1742, the first performance of the work, because it allows you to appreciate Handel’s starting point. I’m not going to detail the chief differences here. You can find them in John Butt’s scholarly yet accessible booklet notes. Though all sung texts and biblical sources are included, when I first read these notes I thought the libretto otherwise received scant attention. This is because a 1430 word introductory section has been edited out. This defines what’s radical about the libretto and the significance of its structure in terms of its potential Handel realized, which is illustrated. But good news, the ‘original’ notes and references are on the Dunedin Consort website, so you can access these and consider if this is a version likely to appeal.

I shall point out the differences from the familiar as they occur in the listening sequence. I shall be comparing the 1754 Foundling Hospital version also available in surround sound, recorded in 1996 by the Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh (Archiv 4770662).

The Dunedin Players are warmly regal yet also purposeful in the slow introduction of Part One’s opening Sinfonia and welcoming, not seeking to impose, with the fast second section dancing, aided by shimmering harpsichord more noticeable than usual because there are only a dozen strings. 4 first violins, 3 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. This results in a clear, clean and rather intimate texture. With double the strings (8, 6, 4, 3, 2), the violins doubled by 4 oboes and the string bass by 4 bassoons, McCreesh’s introduction is more sober and caring in nature, his fast section more concentrated on clarifying the counterpoint than finding Butt’s vivacity.

Dunedin’s tenor Nicholas Mulroy’s opening strings’ accompanied recitative, Comfort ye, is direct and fresh, aided by the appreciably clean focus of the surround sound. While Greyfriars Kirk, dedicated in 1620, is as glowing as All Saints’ Tooting used by McCreesh, this Edinburgh acoustic and Linn recording has a clearer, more immediate, glistening edge. The Kirk acoustic suits the small forces well, being spacious yet not ovewhelmingly vast. Incidentally, on the Kirk website you can view a 360 degree pan of the interior.

At Comfort ye’s one unaccompanied point when Mulroy repeats the opening words (tr. 2 0:43) I wondered what ornamentation he’d provide. He achieves a magical effect by simply sustaining ‘Com’ for 7 seconds and just one brief added passing note at ‘fort’. This anticipates the ‘Come’ at ‘Come unto Him’ in the later aria He shall feed His flock. A modicum of ornamentation is used in repeated phrases and there’s a fine breadth to this recitative, allowing you to take the message in.

But it’s less broad than McCreesh, whose timing is 3:36 against Butt’s 3:16. His accompaniment is balmier, his tenor, Charles Daniels, more lyrical, but the overall effect is less natural. The closing statement, ‘The voice of him’ (tr. 2 3:00) Butt makes more noticeably faster. This marks the change of character and technique, now standard recitative with chordal accompaniment and also anticipates the livelier aria, Ev’ry Valley shall be exalted, where you particularly notice the springing rhythms in the strings matched by the voice. The violins’ echoing phrases at the end with trills (tr. 3 3:05) are deliciously realized with a delicacy not possible with a fuller string body.

Now the opening chorus, And the Glory of the Lord, is forthright, steady but lilting too with well balanced orchestral backing. The surprise will be its size. Only 3 sopranos, 4 contraltos, 3 tenors, 3 basses and these numbers include the soloists. So no grand blazing and no ‘them and us’ about chorus and soloists. Rather a homely gathering of communal worship. So the closing slow affirmation ‘hath spoken it’ isn’t a beefy climax but a serene moment of contemplation. An enlightening difference. The Gabrieli Consort has 8 sopranos, 3 contraltos and 3 countertenors, 5 tenors and 5 basses. A chamber choir but without the flexibility of Dunedin. Their And the Glory of the Lord is lightly articulated yet excited and energized; but Dunedin’s is livelier, not needing to be light because of the fewer voices, has more lilt, is fresher and the correspondence with the strings is closer.

Enter bass Matthew Brook with the accompanied recitative Thus saith the Lord. Now here is plenty of drama with brilliant semiquaver runs on ‘shake’. He’s more exciting than the initial sturdy formality of McCreesh’s Neal Davies. The following But who may abide brings the first unfamiliar music of this Dunedin original version. The first phrase of the strings’ introduction is the same but the second has a short, clipped objectivity introducing a neat, reflective bass aria, not the longer countertenor one we’ve become used to in recent years. It does have some animated runs for the voice on ‘fire’ but nothing like the drama of Handel’s familiar later version with its central prestissimo, as fast as possible, section which returns to effect a dramatic close. And what I missed most, graphically apparent from the brilliance of the Gabrieli Players in the 1754 version, is the Vivaldian violins and violas’ illustration of ‘a Refiner’s Fire’. In this version the aria is now cast for soprano and to hear Susan Gritton scaling the heights in ornamentation is another bonus. Fascinatingly Matthew Brook offers an even more minimalist 27 second plain recitative version as an appendix to the Linn cd (tr. 29).

I can soon shelve my disappointment in the smiling, comely appreciation brought by the Dunedin Consort to the chorus And He shall purify. This is sung with less lightness than the Gabrieli Consort but more depth. There’s more fervour when the voices come together at ‘that they may offer unto the Lord’ (tr. 7 0:47) and a real sense of climax, without bombast, the second time this happens (2:00).

By now the attractive consistency of character of this Dunedin Messiah is apparent. So Behold, a Virgin shall conceive is a plain, direct recitative followed by a warm, unaffected aria O thou that tellest good tidings from contralto Annie Gill. She has a slightly folksy voice but the contrast of this naturalness with the stylish, smiling, regal manner of the strings is pleasing. For McCreesh Bernarda Fink is a little richer in tone and more emotive but McCreesh’s faster tempo (3:18 against 3:38) makes the piece more florid. Butt’s greater measure here gives the expression more intentness. Interestingly Annie Gill chooses not to return to the low A when repeating ‘Say unto the Cities of Judah’(tr. 9 1:44) but rises an octave which gives more memorability to ‘Behold your God’ (1:51) on the same repeated middle As. The chorus response which uses the same words and builds upon the music of the aria is from the Dunedin Consort both urgent and exultant.

The following strings’ accompanied recitative is more sophisticated, presenting a vivid picture of swirling darkness before and as the bass sings For behold, Darkness shall cover the Earth. Butt’s emphasis on the strings’ movement makes the whole more mysterious while Matthew Brook brings a sensitive gradual crescendo on ‘arise’ and a grace to the overall expression. Brook is contemplative whereas Neal Davies for McCreesh begins mysteriously but later to my ears over projects. In the following aria, The People that walked in Darkness, the angular phrasing to indicate lurching about is very clear in the strings’ introduction, then gently mirrored by Brook. His emphasis is positively ‘upon them hath the Light shined’ with ‘the Land of the Shadow of Death’ a matter of grotesqueness, not the poetry Davies gives it.

All is light in the chorus For unto us a Child is born. The Dunedin Consort are gloriously dexterous in the semiquaver runs on ‘born’ and joyous but not massive for those ‘Wonderful, Counsellor’ acclamations. Yet by this time the violins are a splendid more than equal component. Butt relies more on lilt than pace. McCreesh, slightly faster (3:36 against 3:44), is more consciously virtuoso, necessarily so with the oboes doubling the sopranos’ semiquaver runs, has more zip, bursts of sound at ‘Wonderful’ and sense of climax, so the larger forces are an advantage here.

In the following Pifa, that is Pastoral Symphony, Butt’s strings are plainer in articulation. Simple, direct, coming across very naturally, without any extra sweetness or sentimentality. This is partly because of Butt’s well judged, quite pacy approach. And I was surprised, but pleased, to hear the whole Pifa, having understood that it originally only consisted of the first 11 of its 32 bars. This would mean it ending at 0:54 on track 14. However, Butt’s notes point out that “the original shorter version is only positively documented for later performances” and that Handel went out of his way to enlarge the piece in the autograph manuscript, so he assumes, perhaps wishfully, he did this even as early as the first performance. I’d say he was right to do so, for both the music and its emotional significance is extended. This is illustrated by McCreesh who uses the short version Handel preferred in 1754. He takes this very fast (0:38). It’s homely but without emotive content, merely an introduction to the following recitative. Butt stands back a little and enjoys the scene.

For the recitatives beginning There were Shepherds soprano Susan Hamilton has a refreshingly treble like piping clarity of tone and brings a sense of expectation and excitement. The chorus Glory to God, at which the trumpets first appear, is bright, crisp yet quite sturdy. McCreesh gets more dazzle from his fuller forces yet Butt’s immediacy is a fair exchange. McCreesh makes more of a contrast with a softer ‘Peace on Earth’ and a more stylishly softening orchestral postlude.

The aria Rejoice greatly is in its original extended version in 12/8 time. Though niftily sung by Susan Hamilton, voice and echoing strings well matched, it seems to go on for ever and this makes the central ‘He is the righteous Saviour’ seem more of a filler than the heart of the piece. Handel was, I think, right to shorten it and its more concentrated 1754 form is given an animated and accomplished performance by Dorothea Roschmann (3:46 against Hamilton’s 6:19).

The final principal Dunedin soloist now appears, the second contralto Clare Wilkinson, for the recitative Then shall the Eyes of the Blind and aria He shall feed His flock. She’s smooth, warm, quite rich and the aria is liltingly done with a dense accompaniment of strings wrapped gently around. Her decorous ornamentation of the repeated phrases of its second phase, ‘Come unto Him’, is exemplary. But again I feel Handel’s revisions were an improvement. His later change of key from F to B flat major and of voice from contralto to soprano at ‘Come unto Him’ is an unforgettably radiant moment. By 1754 Handel changed again to soprano alone but kept in the more luminous B flat major, creamily presented for McCreesh by Susan Gritton at a more flowing Larghetto (4:18 against Butt’s 5:07), slightly marred by fussier ornamentation.

If, like me, you’ve sung Messiah in an amateur choir you’ll know the chorus His Yoke is easy is the most difficult of all because of the combination of semiquaver runs and variable dotted rhythms. So I’m full of admiration for the way the Dunedin Consort makes it sound easy. This is vibrant, distinctly articulated singing. Their ‘burthern’ really seems light. And is convincingly so because of the small body of voices. McCreesh is slightly faster (2:03 against Butt’s 2:12) but the effect is sketchier, as if trying a little too hard for lightness.

Behold the Lamb of God, the magnificent chorus which opens Part 2, is easier to sing but not so easy to bring off as impressively as the Dunedin Consort do here by simple utterance of starkly expressive wondering realization rather than tragic weight. The jagged dotted rhythms here have a direct power without any special emphasis. McCreesh is more craftedly expressive, with more density, but the dotted rhythms are rather smoothed out and the oboes’ doubling is a distraction, somewhat covering the sopranos’ line. The effect is tragic but less personal. With Butt you get clarity of harmony and enunciation of the text. The music pure.

The contralto aria He was despised is also very moving in the purity of Clare Wilkinson’s intent delivery and the contemplative breadth of Butt’s approach. The central section, ‘He gave his Back to the Smiters’ (tr. 25 5:05) is more dramatic and there’s discreet organ and a modicum of tasteful ornamentation, perhaps a touch overcooked by Wilkinson at the very end. For McCreesh Bernarda Fink is more outwardly emotive and poised but I prefer Wilkinson’s plainer, vibrato free, tone. McCreesh offers an even more expansive Largo (12:11 against Butt’s 11:30) with truly venomous strings in the central section not really matched by Fink.

Now a sequence of choruses, all taken quite pacily by Butt. Surely He hath borne our Griefs has initial bite then plangent contrast and breadth at ‘He was wounded for our Transgressions’ (tr. 26 0:45) where McCreesh is comparatively impersonal. And with His Stripes is rigorous and tense, again with Butt having more edge, with McCreesh’s smoother approach seeming more instrumental than vocal. All we, like Sheep gambols along almost like a madrigal, the matching of Butt’s voices and violins in semiquaver runs wonderfully zestful, the slow ending ‘and the Lord hath laid on Him the Iniquity of us all’ (tr. 28 2:25) thereby the more telling in its plain subdued gaze. This is more effective than McCreesh’s smooth, poetic ending.

While Nicholas Mulroy’s accompanied recitative All they that see Him is suitably dramatic Butt’s chorus He trusted in God is strikingly spiteful in the derision of ‘Let Him deliver him’ (cd 2 tr. 2 e.g. 0:37)  and stabbing glee of ‘if he delight in Him’ (e.g. 1:03), ‘delight’ garnished (e.g. 1:53) with garish quaver runs. McCreesh is vigorous, clear, latterly more climactic but his chorus has less edge in their articulation.

Now another surprise in this original Dublin version. The sequence of recitatives and arias beginning Thy Rebuke hath broken His Heart we expect from the tenor comes from the soprano soloist. When they are as affectingly sung as by Susan Hamilton here the surprise is an illuminating one. Mind you, in that opening recitative Butt also makes the strings’ slowly changing harmonies tell. In the opening aria Behold, and see there’s the purity of Hamilton’s high notes on ‘Behold’ (tr. 4 0:07, 0:50) to savour whereas But Thou didst not leave His Soul in Hell is fittingly more relaxed with this good news and florid with ornamentation earlier absent. McCreesh’s 1754 version uses tenor at first, Charles Daniels in poised, arguably slightly romantic recitatives and not very pleasant scooped ‘Behold’s. A soprano, Susan Gritton, appears for the last recitative and aria But Thou didst not leave with a little more ornamentation than Hamilton.

The chorus Lift up your Heads Butt makes bright and expectant, the dotted rhythms now enthusiastic and a slight crescendo when twice the female voices repeat the question ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ (tr. 7 0:59). Admittedly the second response, ‘The Lord of Hosts’ (1:10), the first time all voices are used in this chorus, lacks the weight and style McCreesh supplies yet Butt compensates with verve and a serene, sheeny approach reinforced by the violins’ backing.

Butt’s chorus Let all the Angels is both regal and incisive, not as strikingly virtuoso or Olympian as McCreesh but with more of a sense of worship. The aria Thou art gone up on High in its version for bass soloist is delivered with an easy bravura by Matthew Brook which catches well both elements of its Allegro larghetto marking. I prefer it to the more varied and sophisticated later version for soprano, though that’s well sung by Dorothea Roschmann for McCreesh.

Now comes Butt’s lively rendering of the chorus The Lord gave the Word. McCreesh has a larger company of preachers, hence more cassocks rustling in semiquavers, yet Butt’s seem more like zealots.

Next, How beautiful are the feet, best known as a soprano aria. This 1742 Dublin version, like me, you probably haven’t heard before. It begins as a duet for contraltos, Annie Gill and Heather Cairncross. This flows into a chorus ‘Break forth into joy!’ in which ‘glad tidings’ burst forth from the chorus parts in turn (tr. 12 1:24) against a sustained ‘thy God reigneth’ (1:38) and echoes of the preceding duet floated in the texture (2:17). Well, it’s different and very engaging once you get used to it, though on paper a later version of the opening duet looks better, in which the second voice is a soprano, in effect providing a descant to the contralto.

Handel’s juxtaposing sustained notes against the regular text survives in the well known soprano version as violins’ sighs, attractively realized by McCreesh as a backcloth to Susan Gritton’s pearly solo. The different chorus that follows in the 1754 version is Their sound is gone out, a more typical, but also concentrated and excited, one of imitative counterpoint.

The bass aria Why do the Nations appears in its lesser known shorter version which ends with a recitative at ‘The Kings of the Earth’ (tr. 13 1:08). Butt’s strings show drive and scintillance and Edward Caswell is a firm soloist. McCreesh’s 1754 version also uses the short setting with Neal Davies more excitingly operatic and the Gabrieli Players’ strings really stunning. Yet Butt is lively enough. 

Let us break their Bonds asunder is in Butt’s hands a razor-sharp eager crowd of a chorus full of euphoria. McCreesh is faster (1:38 against Butt’s 1:48), so virtuoso I can’t visualize this chorus as people. The familiar trenchant tenor aria Thou shalt break them with admirably spiky strings from McCreesh is sadly in Butt’s Dublin version no more than a brief recitative. However, reprieve comes in its inclusion as an appendix (tr. 28) where Nicholas Mulroy sings it with incisiveness and passion.

Butt’s Hallelujah chorus opens serenely. Its majesty is emphasised by a slow trill at ‘for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth’ (tr. 16 0:31) and then immediately asserted by the first appearance of the timpani and even more by the resplendent trumpets, superbly played. They rather take over at the end, but to exhilarating effect, and the timpani are then also well caught. I like the way Butt is determined to move things on from the tenors’ entry at ‘And He shall reign’ (1:41). The basses’ opening is allowed due formality but now let’s get on with it! When the lower voices sing their three Ds at ‘King of Kings’ (2:55) the doubling supreme trumpets sound just like trombones. But then, this is the only time both trumpets play the same notes. McCreesh provides more pace and zest (3:34 against Butt’s 3:56) yet Butt’s climax is no less exultant.

Part 3 opens with another highlight, the soprano aria I know that my Redeemer liveth. Susan Hamilton and Butt give a spiritually direct performance in flowing, purposive tempo, with voice and instruments unaffectedly matched. Susan Gritton and McCreesh are more sedate, smooth and emotive. Arguably McCreesh is closer to the Larghetto marking where Butt is more Andante (5:12 against McCreesh’s 6:23). Personally I prefer Hamilton’s simple expressiveness to Gritton’s loving savouring.

Since by Man came Death is clearly contrasted by Butt between the sombre measured passages such as the opening, the first for unaccompanied chorus, and the swift forthright retorts, such as ‘by Man came also the Resurrection of the Dead’ (tr. 18 0:32) yet with more attention to the articulation of the text than variations of pace. McCreesh goes in for more striking contrasts, with more of a sotto voce opening, yet Butt is equally telling in revealing how the harmonies of the slow sections open out.

Matthew Brook shows fine attention to the nuances of his recitative Behold, I tell you a Mystery then appropriate breadth in the aria The Trumpet shall sound with a little pleasing extra ornamentation in the da capo repeat. Handel’s incorrect stress ‘incorruptible’ is observed though curiously he gets the stress right for ‘corruptible’ in the central section. Neal Davies for McCreesh projects more dramatically but seems less at ease in the central section where Brook’s runs are consistently appreciably shaped. McCreesh’s trumpet has a little more edge and is more imaginative in ornamentation than Butt’s rather more lyrical one.

Annie Gill and Nicholas Mulroy don’t convince me the duet O Death, where is thy Sting? is anything more than a foil for the extension of its mood and in particular its rhythmic interplay more successfully in the chorus But Thanks be to God, a rather more involved witness. The aria If God be for us is better known for soprano than the contralto for the Dublin version and, despite Clare Wilkinson’s good articulation, lies better for soprano voice. Here the violins’ figurations are of the greater interest. For McCreesh soprano Dorothea Roschmann shows the aria changes from assertiveness at the outset to a moving reassurance after ‘It is Christ that died’, tr.24 2:32 from Wilkinson who stays on a relatively even keel throughout.

And so to the magnificent finale. Fear not, even with these small forces Worthy is the Lamb opens in a blaze of sound and then the faster quaver rhythms at ‘to receive Power’ (tr. 25 0:28) are well contrasted before a dexterous, lightly sprung fugue begins at ‘Blessing and Honour’ (1:20). This is singing of gusto yet also flexibility, though McCreesh brings more power and operatic quality. Butt’s Amen chorus opens quite slow, warm and adoring so the brief injection of the full forces at tr. 26 1:20 has the shock of a revelation yet also a sense of fulfilment and roundedness about it, as does the whole unfolding of this fugue to its splendid climax. The tempo is reflective but also flowing, more cogent than McCreesh’s somewhat slower gait, which rather indulges in the sonority.    

So there it is. I’d say there are more gains than losses to be had from this 1742 Dublin experience. In performing this version Butt had to reappraise the work, to consider how the text might be effectively conveyed with smaller forces. This in turn ensured a healthy focus on revealing the text, where McCreesh with the 1754 version seems to me to focus more on the notes, even purely instrumentally at times. To sum up, McCreesh is very good but Butt is often better. McCreesh’s instrumental contributions are generally more stylish and his bigger choruses sometimes have more pizazz. However, partly by his consistent clarity in articulating the text Butt conveys more spirituality which in the final analysis is more significant. He also has the fresher and more immediate recording.

Michael Greenhalgh


 



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