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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Der Messias HWV 56/KV572 (arr. Mozart) [131:00]
Donna Brown (soprano); Cornelia Kallisch (mezzo); Roberto Saccà (tenor); Alastair Miles (bass); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
rec. no details of date or place given
German text and English translation included
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 098.022 [55:33 + 76:00]

Just as Handel had himself re-written many of his works, including Messiah, for varying performance conditions, so Mozart was used to undertaking the refashioning needed to accommodate the requirements of different places or performers. When Mozart was asked by Baron von Swieten to arrange Messiah for performance in 1789 Vienna at the home of Count Johann Esterházy it was therefore by no means something new in principle to him. He had already made similar arrangements of Acis and Galatea, the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast
Mozart reduced the length of Messiah, added wind and brass parts to compensate for the lack of an organ, and rewrote a few sections entirely. The result is certainly very different to the original work but utterly magical. His added parts vary from the very discreet to occasions where they offer a wholly new dimension, as in “All we like sheep” where the woodwind flourishes illustrate the text delightfully or “O death where is thy sting” where the divided violas add real gravity to Handel’s somewhat spare original. At least they usually do so although in this performance it is made to sound almost jaunty - one of the few lapses in Helmuth Rilling’s otherwise appropriate choice of tempo. In several of the choruses Mozart requires parts to be sung by the soloists as a group, making the entry of the full chorus much more dramatic. He also expected the three lower lines of the chorus to be doubled by trombones. These important changes are respected here. You might expect that the overall effect of Mozart’s alterations would be to thicken the textures harmfully, but this is not the case. Ebenezer Prout included many of Mozart’s changes in his once popular edition of the work but spoilt their effect by making further additions and by leaving out some of Mozart’s more quirky but interesting effects. These include the changes to “The trumpet shall sound”, which Mozart deprived of its middle section and its high trumpet obbligato, and to which he added a horn obbligato instead.
It is essential when performing Mozart’s Der Messias - it was intended to be sung in German as it is here - to treat it on its own terms, without any sense of apology for the changes made to Handel’s original. That is largely the case here, even to the extent that the engineers appear to have balanced the woodwind unnaturally close to ensure that we do not miss any of Mozart’s supplementary lines. This can make them sound a little fussy at times, but it does not seriously detract from the overall character of the piece. The soloists are never less than adequate even if none makes any especially positive impression. The choir and orchestra do tend to heaviness at times but overall give a good account of the work. This is a performance that lacks the freshness which Sir Charles Mackerras brought to the arrangement in his first recording of it but is still very well worth hearing if you do not know Mozart’s version. Any Handel enthusiast will want to have several versions of the original to correspond with at least some of the many composer’s own variants, but they should also have at least one recording of Mozart’s arrangement as a supplement. This recording would be a very satisfactory way of achieving that, as well as giving considerable pleasure to the non-specialist.
John Sheppard

Masterwork Index: Messiah