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Hastings Philharmonic performing Messiah in Christ Church (photo: Peter Mould).

Hastings Philharmonic performing Messiah in Christ Church (photo: Peter Mould).

Rethinking Messiah

Easter is a natural time for performing Handel’s oratorio Messiah, with its theme of salvation. But the route from score to performance is not fixed, and HOT’s music correspondent Brian Hick takes a look at different approaches to this popular work.

We have stayed in the Handel Hotel in Fishamble Street in Dublin which is just next door to the site of the hall where Handel first directed Messiah in 1742. Nothing now remains of the venue but the memory is strong even though the work went on to become a national treasure, frequently far removed from Handel’s intentions.

When I first encountered Messiah as a boy the tradition of large choruses, ponderous tempi and a highly romanticised, not to say sentimental, approach was taken for granted. We sang choruses at school; I sang with the Fulham Choral Society; I went to Messiah in my early days of concert going to the Royal Albert Hall with regular performances under Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Two events changed my thinking. When I was working in the BBC Music Library I was able to get tickets for concerts in Maida Vale studios and we went to hear the new Basil Lamb edition of Messiah conducted by Charles Mackerras. It was a revelation. Bright, tight rhythms; a genuine Baroque bounce; singers encouraged to ornament and, for the first time, the use of baroque trumpets.

We take these so much for granted today it is difficult to recall that at that time nobody could play a Baroque trumpet and the soloists had to have three or four goes at The Trumpet shall sound because their lips were not used to the strain.

The other performance was under Raymond Leppard in the Odeon, Swiss Cottage. This was the first time I had heard the work with original instruments and with a very small chorus – the soloists being part of the vocal ensemble rather than separate from it. I have to admit I did not like it. It was a world away from Sargent and the Huddersfield Choral Society. Yet it soon became clear that, even if this was not exactly what Handel would have heard, it was far closer to his original expectations than the massive Edwardian approach I had been used to.

So where does that leave us today? In recent months I have heard two local performances of Messiah – one from Hastings Philharmonic and the other from Battle Choral Society. This is not the place for a critique of the performances – I have done that elsewhere and my views are on record.

What I am interested in here is the approach. Is it acceptable today to mount a Messiah which does not take a specific approach to the score? Is it good enough to simply take the Barenreiter ur-edition and work one’s way through it – going for the most familiar versions of particular arias even when there are known alternatives? I suspect not. I think today the conductor needs to make clear to all concerned what he/she wants to achieve in the performance and how they intend to make it work for the twenty-first century audience.

Battle Choral Society, which recently gave a performance of Messiah in St Mary the Virgin.

Battle Choral Society, which recently gave a performance of Messiah in St Mary the Virgin (photo: BCS).

I don’t think Messiah is an act of worship. Certainly it can be used that way, but I have no reason to think that Handel intended it to be any different from the rest of his sacred oratorios. He thought Theodora his masterpiece and I have no doubt he is right. Theodora is intensely dramatic rather than reflective or meditative. The finest performances of Messiah I have experienced have had that same sense of dramatic energy, of telling a story which sweeps us along to the exultation of Worthy is the Lamb and the final Amen.

If you want meditation then J S Bach is far better and far more complex. Handel, deliberately, keeps things simple for the extrovert Georgian believers and listeners of his own time. This is in no way to undervalue the masterpiece Messiah surely is, but it is to give us a context which I think is far more in keeping with the needs of the twenty-first century.

 

Brian Hick is founder and editor of Lark Reviews.

Posted 11:04 Friday, Apr 19, 2019 In: Music & Sound

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