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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (version by Sir Eugene Goossens and Sir Thomas Beecham, 1959) [134.13]
Penelope Shumate (soprano), Claudia Chapa (mezzo-soprano), John McVeigh (tenor), Christopher Job (bass)
Jonathan Griffith Singers, National Youth Choir of Great Britain
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jonathan Griffith
rec. 2019, Abbey Road Studio No 1, London
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD610 [60.28 + 73.45]

I don’t think there can be any doubt that when Sir Thomas Beecham set out to record Handel’s Messiah in 1959 and commissioned Sir Eugène Goossens (as this disc consistently accents his name) to recast the original orchestration for a full-sized romantic symphony orchestra he was consciously perpetrating a deliberate outrage on the ranks of those who were beginning to promoting the cause of ‘authentic performance’ in baroque music. In his autobiography Putting the record straight John Culshaw records how Beecham harangued him over the subject: “[Handel] would have used every damn thing he could get his hands on. Hundreds of people. Thousands of people”. And what makes the joke even funnier is the fact that the RCA recording really does capture the uninhibited joy of Handel’s music and his infectious sense of humour even while it goes out of its way to offend against every canon of good taste and every notion of correct performance in the baroque style – to the extent that Brian Kay on BBC’s Building a Library chose the Beecham recording as his ‘best buy’ in 1999, a choice calculated to send a shudder through the ranks of the authenticist brigade.

Indeed, Beecham’s recording seems to have effectively quashed any attempt by would-be rivals to revisit the Goossens arrangement of the score – until now. In fact Jonathan Griffith has been giving performances of the Beecham-Goossens Messiah in New York as an annual event since 2011, and these discs have been sponsored by a raft of patrons of those performances although the actual recording has been made in London with Beecham’s old orchestra the Royal Philharmonic who appeared on the 1959 LPs all those years ago. But there is one major difference to the whole enterprise; Beecham clearly enjoyed the outrages committed by Goossens on the body of Handel’s orchestra, while Griffith seems to take it all quite seriously. But, then again, not seriously enough to constitute an authentic reproduction of the Goossens-Beecham version of period style.

Let us begin with one example of the orchestration. When the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, Goossens sprinkles arpeggios from two harps across the music, and the booklet note with this recording refers to the use of two harps in the orchestration; but here, as the booklet again confirms, we have only one harp and the effect is diminished thereby. Similarly a few minutes later the muttering timpani in the closing bars of Glory to God as the angels depart back into heaven are relished by Beecham while Griffith treats them in a relatively matter-of-fact way; and later on during the aria Thou shalt break them Goossens’s employment of a roll on a suspended cymbal (one of his most outrageous touches) which Beecham, aided by a display of strenuous heroics from Jon Vickers, turns into a positively Wagnerian moment, the percussionist is almost apologetic in tone, giving a gentle wash of sound instead of a dramatic outburst.

Then there is the matter of the text. Beecham, as part of his anti-authenticist campaign, is quite clear that he will have no truck with the ornamentation of the text – including the retention of the blunt-ended recitatives that are shown in Handel’s notation. These sound quite odd nowadays, when we are accustomed to the smoother effect of the appoggiaturation of these phrases; but it is clearly what Beecham wanted, and it is part of the overall atmosphere of his performance as much as the re-orchestration. Here the singers adopt modern good manners and adjust the music accordingly, which may be more correct in terms of Handelian practice but which actually sounds contradictory to the style of the performance elsewhere. And similarly, they persistently amend Handel’s accentuation: in the opening recitative we are presented with the sung word “accomplish’d” instead of the notated “accomplishèd” and this sort of alteration recurs time and time again. This is inconsistent not only with the text as actually set by Goossens but also with dramatic practice in the eighteenth-century, and is not excused by Handel’s occasional problems with the idiomatic rendering of the English language. We are also vouchsafed some ornamentation, not only by the singers but also by instrumentalists such as the trumpet in The trumpet shall sound (shorn here of its middle section and da capo repeat).

Then there is the matter of the actual numbers included in the score. When Beecham made his original recording, it was still regular practice to omit several numbers from the ‘standard edition’ as established in the nineteenth century by Prout and other editors – Sargent had done so on his recordings, for example. At that time there was little comprehension of the multifarious amendments Handel had made to his score for different performers at different times, but even so Beecham did ensure that the ‘omitted’ numbers were included in his performance as an appendix. It does not appear that these extra items were in fact orchestrated by Goossens, and the booklet note uses this fact to justify their omission here. But the results are decidedly odd, especially in Part Two where the sudden choral eruption at the beginning of The Lord gave the word sits uncomfortably when it comes immediately after the chorus Lift up your heads without the intervening recitative and aria. Incidentally, Griffith points out the fact that he allows minimal pauses between movements in order to maintain dramatic momentum; but this is hardly an innovation, and indeed for most of the time the silences between sections are no more curtailed than in many modern recordings (or indeed in many live performances where the conductor makes provision for the choruses to be already standing at the appropriate times).

In his early performances of Messiah Beecham had garnered quite a reputation for his swift speeds in the faster movements, but by the time he made his 1959 recording his tempi had becomes relatively sedate even in sections like All we like sheep or His yoke is easy. He did however, have the services of a medium-sized choir of professional singers who were well able to cope with the florid divisions of their choral lines. Here we have a larger body of amateur choristers drawn from across the world, with reinforcement from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. And as might be expected from young singers, especially when set against the forces of a full-sized romantic symphony orchestra, there are occasions when a lack of solid tone makes itself felt, for example in the exposed higher tenor passages in Lift up your heads or even more seriously in the fugal subject of “And he shall reign for ever and ever” in the Hallelujah chorus. There are occasions too when the chorus are simply submerged within the orchestra, especially during the closing passages of Worthy is the Lamb or the final Amen when the internal choral lines of the fugue disappear entirely behind the body of instrumental tone.

Beecham in his recording had the use of a cast of full-scale operatic singers – he had originally been offered Joan Sutherland (who had in her earlier years a great reputation as a Handel stylist) but had taken great delight in turning her services down, much to the horror of the commercially-minded RCA management in New York. But nevertheless the singers he chose – the heroic Jon Vickers, the positively subterranean Monica Sinclair, the pert Jennifer Vyvyan, and the resonant Giorgio Tozzi – all had the ability to cope with Handel’s elaborately decorative lines in a manner that cannot always be assumed even today. The four soloists here, all apparently veterans of Griffith’s New York performances, are a much less stellar crew although Claudia Chapa rivals Monica Sinclair for the richness of her contralto tones. But Penelope Shumate is undesirably thin-toned in the soprano arias, and John McVeigh seems to have some difficulty with his more elaborate runs, taking them at a sprint which threaten to drift apart from the accompaniment. Christopher Job is the most satisfactory of the soloists here; but all of them, as has been noted, adopt modern styles of Handelian singing and occasional ornamentation which sit somewhat incongruously in terms of the Goossens version of the score. I suspect that all four would have been happier in a more baroque performance of the music.

The sound of the recording is excellent, and apart from the noted problems of balance between the chorus and orchestra everything is clear – which enables the listener to appreciate the delicate touches which Goossens frequently brings into his orchestration. But then the original Beecham recording may be sixty years old now, but it is generally just as effective in getting across these effects, while Beecham’s clear enjoyment of his joke is infectious in a manner that eludes Griffith in this recording. The booklet notes by Andrew Stewart are informative, especially regarding the matter of the disputes that have arisen over the years as to precisely who (Beecham, Goossens, or someone else) was responsible for what in the edition. There are extensive biographies of the performers (that for McVeigh informs us slightly alarmingly that he has “performed notorious pieces throughout the world”) but there is also a degree of hyperbole which could be misleading, as when the conductor opens his introductory note with the implication that he conducted the “US Première” of Messiah in 2000 (he means the Goossens orchestration, but that is not actually stated). The New York performances were promoted by the organisation Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) of which the conductor is the artistic director, and which Andrew Stewart describes as “New York’s leading promoter of classical music” – a description which I would tactfully suggest might be challenged by some other bodies in that city.

The booklet contains complete texts in English (including the central sections in the da capo arias He was despised and The trumpet shall sound which are omitted in this recording). We are advised that translations are available “in other languages” online; I was unable to locate these, or indeed the internet address given in the booklet, at the time of writing. One nice touch of authenticity: we are advised that a portion of the profit from the recording will go to the Coram Foundation, the successor to the Founding Hospital for whom Handel gave benefit performances of Messiah during his lifetime.

Those who have enjoyed Griffith’s performances in New York or who are seduced by the definitely OTT description of this set as Messiah…Refreshed! will find plenty to enjoy here. But I would suggest that those who would like a version of the Goossens-Beecham version of Messiah (and even baroque specialists should have a go once in a while, at whatever the cost to their blood pressure!) should remain very well satisfied with the older recording.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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