With 50-plus recordings, and thousands of performances every year, Handel's Messiah is, without doubt, one of the most popular works ever written. But does its popularity overshadow other great music? Here are six similar works to explore...
Handel Judas Maccabaeus
Written six years after Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus proved to be one of Handel’s most popular oratorios. The work, which is set around 160BC, tells the story of a Jewish rebellion against the pagan Seleucid Empire. It was possibly written to celebrate the English victory at Culloden, all of which explains the contagious excitement of the oratorio’s most famous aria, ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’. Judas Maccabaeus is not only similar to Messiah in its form, but its music has the same deftness and ethereal beauty too, complete with stirring choruses. Handel at his best.
English Chamber Orchestra; Wandsworth School Choir/Sir Charles Mackerras
DG Archiv 447 6922
Handel L’Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato
Handel’s pastoral ode from 1740 takes as its starting point two poems by Milton, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. The first paints a picture of a joyful person (‘Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee/ Jest and youthful Jollity’) while the second sketches a thoughtful, melancholy character (‘Hence vain deluding joyes’). The libretto, by James Harris, weaves the two together and adds a third – by Charles Jennens: il Moderato. If that sounds like a recipe for chaos, the music blends it all together in a glorious whole: Handel creates a subtle exploration of different moods through a discussion of an idealised landscape. Listen, particularly, to the graceful melancholy of the soprano aria ‘Sweet bird, that shun’st the noise of Folly’.
The King’s Consort/Robert King
Hyperion CDA 67283-4
Telemann In dulci jubilo
Here’s a charming festive moment from Handel’s contemporary and compatriot, the perennially underrated Georg Philipp Telemann. By no means a showpiece of Messiah’s magnificence – it’s but a fragment of the length, for a start – Telemann’s 1719 cantata instead takes a gently reflective approach to its seasonal fare: this is the warming glass of mulled wine at home to Messiah’s big night out on the town. The effortless elegance of the familiar opening chorale is continued throughout the rest of the cantata, including winning arias for tenor and bass, the latter of which contains a moment that bears an uncanny resemblance to Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, published just two years later.
Collegium Musicum 90/Simon Standage
Mendelssohn might be famous for rediscovering JS Bach in the 19th century, but he was also a champion of Handel. He conducted and edited the Baroque composer’s oratorios, so it’s no surprise that Handel’s influence can be found in Mendelssohn’s music. For a seasonal work, try Christus, Mendelssohn’s third oratorio. Mendelssohn died before he finished it, but there’s plenty of first-rate music in what he did get down on paper – the 13 movements explore the Nativity and the Passion, and include the exquisite four-part chorus ‘Es wird ein Stern aus Jakob aufgehn’ (There shall come a star out of Jacob).
Accentus; Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/Laurence Equilbey
Mondonville Venite, exultemus
Few works can match the Messiah’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus for sheer exuberance, but this veritable bouncing ball of choral jollity from 1740 isn’t far off the mark. Its composer, Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, plied his trade in Paris where he was employed as a violinist at both the royal court and the Concert Spirituel concert series. Venite, exultemus is one of the nine surviving grand motets for which he is best known as a composer today, and brilliantly reveals his mastery in creating maximum impact with relatively restrained instrumental
forces. Over its 20 minutes we get a series of up-beat arias – the baritone’s ‘Quoniam ipsius’ is particularly infectious – before the chorus rounds things off with a virtuosic, all-guns-blazing ‘Gloria’.
The Choir of New College, Oxford, London Baroque/Edward Higginbottom
Hyperion CDA 66296
Saint-Saëns Oratorio de Noël
Finally, something of a festive wildcard from Saint-Saëns, a composer so prodigiously gifted that, at an age when most are still wild-eyed and full of wonder at the prospect of Santa and co., he was already busying himself with getting his first few opus numbers into the catalogue. And yet, he was also a composer from whom the sparkle of youth would never entirely disappear. Composed in 1858, his Oratorio de Noël for choir, organ and orchestra is a suitably awe-struck affair. Don’t be fooled by the misleading description of the opening Prelude as being ‘In the style of JS Bach’, as it sounds nothing like him. Do, however, enjoy the sumptuous array of arias, duets, trios, quartets, quintets and choruses that follows. Joyeux Noël!
Anne Sofie von Otter etc; Mikaeli Chamber Choir/Anders Eby
Proprius PRSACD 9057