Messiah: What’s Your Favorite Recording?

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composer and businessman, died old and rich(Photo: fayer)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composer and businessman, died old and rich(Photo: fayer)

It’s Messiah season. There is no bad time to hear Handel’s oratorio of 1742, but Christmas and Easter being out the best of choirs worldwide.

Part 1 deals with the Nativity.  Handel himself considered the entire work appropriate for Easter, and it was during that holiday the work was first heard, in Dublin in 1742. 

Messiah was well received by the Anglo-Irish, but took off the following year in London. King George II was so moved that he stood us during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. Either that or he had to go to the bathroom, depending on which history you read. But if the king stands so does everyone else. To this day one stands for the Hallelujah chorus, potty or not.

What’s your favorite recording of Messiah? There have been rock versions, blues versions, jazz versions, inflated thousand voice choir versions complete with saxophones, (not invented until 100 years after Handel’s death).

Then there are Handel’s versions.  Plural. This practical composer was a fine business man who had no problem making changes to accommodate local artists and audiences.  Mozart had a go with Messiah in 1789, reorchestrating the work to a German translation for performances in Vienna. There’s a wonderful BBC broadcast of this with Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey. It is worth seeking out.

I can’t recommended one recording, however here are several worthies that are still available:

Sir Thomas Beecham conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, with Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, John Vickers and Giorgio Tozzi. A notorious performance using the orchestration by Sir Eugene Goosens. This is the one with the saxophones.

Beecham is stately and ceremonial. Everything is granitic and rich. Musicologists hate this. I wore out three LP copies and love it. RCA Red Seal has a one disc of highlights. it is well worth a listen.

http://youtu.be/iFJDT7lqWD8

Sir Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield and John Shirley-Quirk. This is available cheap from Philips. It’s a much-loved performance. The balance between chorus and orchestra is just right. The singing in consistently crisp-the diction superb. The set is worth having if only to hear Helen Watts:

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have a lovely new recording out. This is performed in the style typical today-not much vibrato, original; instruments, pitched a bit lower. It’s “Baroque pitch” but who was around then, anyhow? The singing doesn’t go all twee-British.

Closer to home Apollo’s Fire,  Cleveland’s baroque orchestra,  does a Messiah with the now expected smaller forces-and with a lot of energy and style. This performance sweeps the listener along-no plodding or over reverence here. This is Handel’s theatrical Messiah.

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Trinity Church at Broadway and Wall Street was damaged on 9/11. The sanctuary was used as triage for those wounded. A recording made at this historic church (in 1996) is available cheap from Naxos. This is filled with reverence and love. Most of the musicians are amateurs in the best sense–for love. Conductor Owen Burdick holds to a high standard. This is the type of performance you’d like to hear in your own church.

And then there’s my favorite Messiah. Richard Bonynge conducting the Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra. This is not for everybody.

Dame Joan Sutherland sings ‘Rejoice Greatly,’ but there’s not a consonant to be heard in the entire performance.

The choral singing is great. I love the tempi, except for the ridiculous grand ritard in the middle of the Hallelujah Chorus – was King George II constipated?

The catch to this is contralto Huguette Tourangeau. You love her or you hate her. She sounds like a man with pitch problems, however in real life Tourangeau is a gorgeous, sexy woman. She and Dame Joan run a close who has the worst diction race. Tourangeau has long brought this recording into the ‘part favorite’ category. I don’t care. I love it.

Saxophones or not; vibrato or not; small chipping orchestras or big bands and a contralto without equal (ahem) nothing ruins Messiah. Remember as you listen that Handel wrote this over a six week period in the summer of 1741, while working on several other projects. Forget the depressed, penniless composer nonsense George Frederick died old and rich other projects.

Hallelujah, indeed!

Comments
  • http://profile.yahoo.com/BN5C27FG7LWYXXXFHCDZUTOWV4 Mark from HFR

    I’ve grown so used to the buoyancy of a lot of the period instrument performances that I have trouble stomaching many big band performances, though I respect the Davis version, in particular. But a lot of the historically-supposedly-informed performances are overly fussy and precious. One that doesn’t pull many of its punches is the recording led by Paul McCreesh. It’s particularly enjoyable for the manic sizzle of the “for he is like a refiner’s fire” section of the aria “But Who May Abide.” For modern instruments, I like the vigorous but (surprisingly!) poised version by Sir Georg Solti.