George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Messiah (1742) [124:04]
Dora Labbette (soprano); Muriel Brunskill (alto); Hubert Eisdell (tenor); Harold Williams (bass)
BBC Choir; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec. Central Hall, Westminster, London, June–July 1927 PRISTINE AUDIO PACO129 [61:01 + 63:03]
No performing tradition, still less any individual interpretation, can exhaust such an established and ubiquitous masterpiece as Messiah. This Columbia set of 1927 is the first of Thomas Beecham’s three recordings of it and was recognised at the time as the mark of a turning away from the gargantuan performances of the nineteenth century. While not ‘authentic’ as we would understand the term now, it is closer in spirit to Handel’s original than the interpretations by Beecham’s Victorian forbears would have been, never mind either the conductor’s own celebrated account of the Goossens' re-orchestration in 1959 or his own more eccentric one of 1947.
Listeners expecting an old-fashioned, leisurely reading might be surprised to hear a performance that is often lithe with agile, even brisk, tempi. On the other hand Beecham’s typically characterful approach and sensitive phrasing of the music is very often in evidence. One exception is the stodgy account of ‘His yoke is easy’, the sluggish speed ironically undermining — surely unintentionally — that attribution of the Saviour’s demeanour and ministry. In general the choir does not sound vast, and that benefits Handel’s choral textures considerably, particularly in the florid contrapuntal lines of faster-paced choruses such as ‘And He shall purify’ and ‘For unto us’, which are supple and unanimous. The recorded balance in this transfer also favours the lower choral parts, such that more of the polyphonic interplay among the choir is heard than usual.
The four soloists serve Beecham well even if they are not, ultimately, as memorable as those on his 1959 version. Dora Labbette sings with a boyish purity like a treble, though her coloratura is not always exact; neither is that of tenor Hubert Eisdell in ‘Ev’ry valley’ which falls slightly out of step with the orchestra. Otherwise he sounds lyrical and unforced. Muriel Brunskill exemplifies that now nearly vanished tradition of the contralto, with a deeper, mellower quality to the music she is allotted. In the bass role Harold Williams sings with elegance, never resorting to the growling roughness in the fast virtuosic lines of ‘But who may abide’ and ‘Why do the nations’ which are heard too frequently.
An interesting comparison may be made with Sargent’s 1946 recording with the Huddersfield Choral Society (review), which also sheds illuminating light upon how Messiah was performed in the period immediately before historically informed practice took hold. Where Sargent is reverent and solemn, Beecham may be regarded as taking a less sacred view, imparting more theatricality; one might cite the more expressive, even mannered, way with the latter’s recitatives at times.
This 1927 recording has been released before, but not exactly in this form. It is not complete now — with various cuts mostly in the second and third parts. It has been filled out with a notably heavy-handed version of the Pastoral Symphony, recorded during the original sessions but left out of the final release so as not to make an odd side on the original set of 78s, and the final ‘Amen’ which was taken from the 1947 performance since, curiously, it was not recorded in 1927. This patchwork at the conclusion results in the momentum and tension built up in the ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ being sadly dissipated by the pause before the ‘Amen’, and by the different acoustic atmosphere and the more casual rendition of the latter in contrast with the preceding chorus. A couple of other numbers are grafted in from later recording sessions — from the Portman Rooms in London, rather than Westminster’s Central Hall — for reasons not explained.
The present transfer brings out a generally clean and bright sound; an occasional bass-heavy texture is not entirely eliminated, but for the most part, balance is very even. There is little impression of a recording now virtually ninety years old. This early milestone in the recorded history of Messiah will be of interest to those concerned with this perennial work, as well as Beecham fans.