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
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
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
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
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’
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.