HANDEL Messiah • Neville Mariner,cond; Elly Ameling (sop); Anna Reynolds (alt); Philip Langridge (ten); Gwynne Howell (bs); Academy and Chorus of St. Martin in the Fields • LONDON 444 824 (2 CDs: 140:23 Text and Translation)
In the years after Handel’s death in 1759, Messiah was seen as the epitome of the oratorio genre. The monumental Westminster Abbey Handel commemoration in 1784 employed some 500 performers and went a long wayRead more to firmly implanting Messiah at the center of English musical life. In the 19th century its fame grew as did the number of performers. The Crystal Palace performance in the 1870s boasted 3,500 participants, 3,000 of them in the choir! And there was a time when many of us—primarily us baby boomers and our parents—were spiritually enriched by what I term this “traditional” version of Handel’s Messiah. Whenever we went to a live performance or heard it broadcast, we were—more often than not—seated in or listening to a performance from a venue with a large symphony orchestra, a chorus of a hundred or more voices, and a conductor using an edition prepared by an Englishman with the Dickensian-sounding moniker of Ebeneezer Prout, an edition far removed from Handel’s original.
In the middle of the last century, and predicated on the assumption that less is more, smaller orchestras were assembled and they began making use of Handel’s original orchestration. The choirs were also pared down, some to the point that they could fit comfortably into your garage. But contrary to what many of us might think, this approach was far from new. It was first taken up in the last years of the 19th century and therefore predates the small-ensemble approach by almost two generations! In June of 1894, Arthur Henry Mann, organist and choirmaster at King’s College, Cambridge, conducted a performance that swept aside generations of accretions. Mann reverted to Handel’s original instrumentation, restored the original texts, and used forces that matched those pressed into service by the composer. The performances took place at Cambridge Town Hall and received high marks in the Musical Times, but it took more than half a century for Mann’s carefully researched efforts to take root and to flower.
At some point after the end of World War II things began to change. Spurred by musicological research and a quest for Handel the way Handel may have heard and performed it forever altered the musical landscape, not just for Messiah but for Baroque music in general. Musicians began to resurrect instruments from the Baroque and to reinstate the performance practices of the day in what has become a never-ending quest for what is an unattainable authenticity. The bottom line is this: The best we can achieve is what I prefer to term an enlightened approximation.
As the end of the first decade of the 21st century draws nigh, and as a result of the musical archaeology of recent decades, most of us are aware that there is no definitive version of Handel’s Messiah, but there are probably others who need to be enlightened. A respectable number of selections, particularly the arias, can be found in different versions. These date from Handel’s time and were tailored for the abilities of specific soloists, a process that was a given in the 18th century. During the last 17 years of Handel’s life, Messiah was performed again and again, so for a variety of reasons a change in soloists was inescapable.
One characteristic that makes this easier and also makes Messiah unique among Handel’s oratorios is that there is no cast of characters. The story of the birth, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is told in narrative form, so transferring an aria from soprano to tenor or alto to bass could be accomplished without worrying about disturbing a dramatic structure. Messiah would undergo further changes by other hands as time passed. The two most notable were Mozart’s 1789 re-orchestration for a performance in Vienna and the aforementioned Prout edition, which dated from Victorian times and is still in print today.
While there have been many recordings of various versions of Messiah in the last quarter-century, Neville Marriner gave us the first—and to my knowledge the only—recording of the version used by Handel for the 1743 London premiere, on vinyl in 1976; this was rereleased on compact disc as part of London’s specially priced Double Decker series in 1995. Marriner’s choice of music used by Handel for the London premiere contains several items that differ drastically from the versions on which many of us cut our musical teeth. I have broken them down according to the parts of the oratorio.
In part I, the opening and closing ritornelli of No. 3, “Ev’ry Valley,” contain two measures that Handel cut after the Dublin premiere and restored later. “But Who May Abide” (No. 6) is totally different and furthermore it is missing the prestissimo section of the later version for alto. It should be noted here that part of the aria was written for the great castrato Gaetano Guadagni; there is absolutely no evidence that the longer version of the aria was ever assigned by Handel to a bass. The soprano version of this aria (found on Guild GMDD 7112/13) is almost never heard, even to this day. It had been transposed by Handel to a key that disturbs the flow from the A Major of “And the Glory of the Lord” to the D Minor of “Thus Saith the Lord” and “But Who May Abide.” The gigue-like quality of No. 18, “Rejoice Greatly,” is totally different from the common-time setting most of us know. “He Shall Feed His Flock” (No. 20) is here set for alto alone as opposed to the better-known version for soprano and alto.
In part II, the sequence of Nos. 29–32, later assigned to a tenor, are—in the original London version—sung by two soloists to enhance what Christopher Hogwood calls the contrast of desolation and optimism. “Thou Art Gone Up” (No. 36) was swapped about among bass, alto, and soprano in Handel’s time. Next comes No. 38,“How Beautiful Are the Feet,” which Handel set for soprano and alto, and concluded with a choral passage, “Break Forth.” No. 39 (“Their Sound Is Gone Out”) is a simple recitative. The well-known bass aria that follows (“Why Do the Nations”) is shorter and more dramatic than the later version and runs into the following chorus, “Let Us Break Their Bonds.”
As for part III, No. 50, “O Death, Where Is Thy Sting,” was cut roughly in half by Handel after the Dublin premiere, but the majority of manuscript sources retain the longer version recorded here. Finally, No. 52, “If God Be for Us,” is for soprano in some of the early versions, but it was sung by alto Susanna Cibber in both Dublin and London.
All of the variants used by Marriner and others prepared by Handel, save one, are contained in the appendices of the recording by Nicholas McGegan on Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907050/52). The missing item is a duet version of “How Beautiful Are the Feet” for two altos and chorus, which is not included in the Watkins Shaw edition of the score that holds the rest of the different versions.
This has been my personal favorite for many years, followed closely by the scaled-down and tastefully ornamented 1966 release on Philips conducted by Colin Davis. Marriner’s soloists were the best available, and all were Messiah veterans who took the music and the message to heart, drawing the listener in and holding them without exceeding taste or tradition. Elly Ameling’s “Rejoice Greatly” is a model of its kind, the gigue rhythm dancing its way along, and Gwynne Howell’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound” makes one think the Last Judgment is at hand! Anna Reynolds, too, is stunning and her reading of “He Was Despised” may be the most soulful ever recorded, save that of Kathleen Ferrier. Finally, the late Phillip Langridge perfectly captured the contrasting moods in “Ev’ry Valley” and “Thou Shalt Break Them.” Marriner’s choir (prepared by László Heltay) is adept and alert, performing with enviable agility, impeccable enunciation, and the required emotional gravitas when necessary. One need not comment on the contributions provided by Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, for the name says it all.
I have used a lot of space for this piece, and certainly appreciate the editor allowing me to indulge, but in my opinion, it was necessary to delineate the artistic strengths found and esthetic choices made. There have been many recordings of Messiah since this 1976 release and there will no doubt be many more to come, but few, if any, will match, let alone surpass, this of Marriner. It is truly a masterpiece!
Messiah, HWV 56by George Frideric Handel Performer:
Gwynne Howell (Bass),
Philip Langridge (Tenor),
Anna Reynolds (Alto),
Elly Ameling (Soprano)
Sir Neville Marriner
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields,
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chorus
Period: Baroque Written: 1741; London, England Date of Recording: 1976 Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London Length: 140 Minutes 23 Secs. Language: English