Performances of Handel’s Messiah are now a public ritual, yet our annual sing-ins and choral society performances misrepresent the work.
Conceived at a career low, Messiah was successfully test-run in Dublin, but in London fell foul of the church’s ban on performing Biblical verses in a theatre. Handel got around this by making Messiah a feature of his Lenten charity benefit concerts. These became a seasonal ritual for leading citizens, not least because of the new music Handel would introduce for his star soloists.
Following the 1784 Handel Commemoration at Westminster Abbey, the score of Messiah became fixed, and performing forces huge. Re-scored by Mozart and others, post-1780 versions dropped star-specific solos, obscured Handel’s counterpoint, and slowed his ebullient dance rhythms.
Artists tackling Messiah today therefore face the challenge both of getting to grips with Handel’s different versions – and of meeting expectations set up by misinformed past practice.
The Best Recording of Handel’s Messiah
Stephen Layton (conductor)
Allan Clayton, Iestyn Davies, Polyphony; Britten Sinfonia (2009)
Stephen Layton’s musicians bring an unparalleled freshness to this familiar work, combining power with a delicacy faithful to Handel’s Baroque sensibility. The music Handel composed for Messiah is meant to convince audiences of a vision beyond religious factionalism, and Layton rightly shapes his reading around the oratorio’s verses.
Every phrase, whether played or sung, is suffused with word-meaning. Momentum builds throughout the work, thanks to the excellent musicianship of choir, conductor, instrumentalists and soloists alike.
The choir’s responsiveness, the Britten Sinfonia’s airy ensemble, the fluidity of Layton’s tempos and the musical imagination of the soloists deftly nuance a score forged from Messiah’s 1750 version and some later variants.
Modern instruments are made to sound like period instruments, with the players adopting a Baroque clarity, nimbleness and ingenuity of extemporisation. Gorgeous instrumental solos abound.
Violinist Jacqueline Shave’s obbligato lines are particularly delightful, delivered with such sweet vulnerability to make the same passages on rival discs seem clunky.
Similarly, while larger than the choirs Handel directed, Polyphony retains the transparency needed to portray Handel’s elaborate counterpoint, which culminates in the final ‘Amen’. This Messiah not only captures the heart, but ravishes the ear.
Three more great recordings of Handel’s Messiah
René Jacobs (conductor)
Kerstin Avemo, Patricia Bardon, Lawrence Zazzo, Kobie van Rensburg, Neal Davies; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Freiburger Barockorchester (2006)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901928
Virtuosity makes this performance sizzle. This is the ‘Guadagni’ version of Messiah, adapted by Handel in 1750 to showcase that celebrated alto castrato, but here everyone is a star. The band’s sharp attacks transform familiar numbers, such as ‘Why do the Nations’ and ‘But who may abide’, into show-stoppers.
Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo inhabits Guadagni’s parts with utter conviction, while René Jacobs extracts from the Choir of Clare College an uncharacteristic flamboyance, particularly in the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, where stark contrasts abound.
John Butt (conductor)
Susan Hamilton, Annie Gill, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, Edward Caswell; The Dunedin Consort & Players (2006)
Linn CKD 285
The Dunedin Consort and Players strike out daringly from the beaten path in this recording of Handel’s very first Messiah (from Dublin in 1742).
The skeleton forces of just 13 vocalists and a neat 17-member band facilitate a nimbleness and responsiveness unique among Messiah recordings, and indeed, the choruses are surprisingly robust. Highly original are both the continuo realisation (with John Butt at the harpsichord) and the ‘Pifa’ or ‘Pastoral Symphony’ section’s dreamy atmosphere.
The vocal ensemble deftly teases out Messiah’s various moods, and they possess an impressive freshness throughout the recording, although it has to be said that the soloists sometimes disappoint.
William Christie (conductor)
Barbara Schlick, Sandrine Piau, Andreas Scholl, Mark Padmore, Nathan Berg;
Les Arts Florissants (1994)
Harmonia Mundi HMG 501498.99
For quality of soloists, this disc ranks top dog: Andreas Scholl, Sandrine Piau, Nathan Berg and a young Mark Padmore are exquisite. Padmore’s opening recitative arioso uses silence more eloquently than any other recording I’ve heard, while the limpid beauty of Scholl’s countertenor voice, combined with the subtlety of his interpretation, makes the simplest melodies the most eloquent.
That conductor William Christie applies snappy French dotted rhythms to Handel’s score serves to illuminate gestures such as the sarabande lilt in ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, but his overall coolness undermines the choir, whose dramatic voice is sadly left largely unrealised.
And one to avoid…
There’s something eternal about Thomas Beecham’s overscored recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus – and not in a good way.
It just seems to go on forever. Tempos are drearily slow, instrumental playing rhythmically slack and often plain out of tune, and dynamics about as subtle as auntie at Christmas after one too many sherries.
And as for the singing – you’re either subjected to histrionic soloists or lumbering chorus. More mess than Messiah.
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine