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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Messiah, oratorio in 3 parts (version 1751) (HWV 56)

Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones, Robert Brooks, treble; Iestyn Davies, alto; Toby Spence, tenor; Eamonn Dougan, bass
Choir of New College, Oxford; The Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Edward Higginbottom

rec: Jan 3 - 8, 2006, London, St John's, Smith Square
Naxos - 8.570131-32 (© 2006) (2.22'20")

Today Handel's Messiah is definitely his most popular piece, judging by the numerous performances all over the world, and the long list of recordings in the catalogue. And in particular in England it has become a kind of national monument. But that hasn't always been the case, and certainly not in England in Handel's own time. It was only from 1750 on that Handel began to perform it annually, whereas in the years between 1745 and 1749 he wasn't very successful in his attempts to revive it. And when it was first performed in London in March 1743 it received a mixed reception, as some people took offence at the fact that the performances were given in the Covent Garden Theatre, with opera singers as soloists. The Universal Spectator published a letter which said: "An oratorio either is an Act of Religion or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God's Word".

How different the reception was when it was first performed in Dublin in April 1742! In the autumn of 1741 Handel had received the invitation to perform his music in Ireland, and in December the first concert with some of his vocal works took place to the general approval of the audience. The performance of Messiah in April of the following year received wildly enthusiastic reviews. The Dublin Journal wrote: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear."

In the booklet to this recording Simon Heighes emphasizes that Messiah was first and foremost meant as 'entertainment'. He states that "there is no evidence that Handel himself ever intended an evangelical purpose. (…) Handel's purpose was to delight and charm his listeners …". And here he refers to the quotation from the Dublin Journal given above. But this doesn't say anything about Handel's intentions, only about the way some in the audience might have received it. In the booklet of his recording of Messiah Nicholas McGegan writes: "In Handel's lifetime, Messiah was sometimes called a 'Grand Musical Entertainment'. When complimented on this, he is reported to have replied, 'I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better'". In Handel's time there was no fundamental difference between entertainment and moral edification anyway: the word German composers – among them Bach – often used, Gemüths-Ergötzung, is much more than just recreation. It is something like a spiritual uplift which seems to me the appropriate description for Handel's Messiah as well.

Heighes also refers to the fact that Handel usually performed Messiah for charity. That started in 1749 with performances at the Foundling Hospital. As was quite usual in those days music was adapted to the circumstances, and as a result a number of different versions of Messiah exist. The perhaps most frequently performed version is that of Handel's performances at the Foundling Hospital. In the case of the present recording one of these performances is specifically followed: the one which took place in 1751, in which Handel chose the soprano parts to be sung by trebles. It is not known why he did so, but one may assume that the Chapel Royal at the time – which was the resource of Handel's singers – had some fine trebles available, which were able to sing the solo parts. The only difference between this particular version and the usual Foundling Hospital version is the use of trebles. In addition the aria 'Rejoice greatly' in Part 1 is sung by a tenor, whereas it was usually performed by a soprano. As far as I know this is the first recording of this particular version, and therefore it is interesting in regard to our knowledge of the history of Handel's own performances.

It is not the first recording where the solo parts for soprano are sung by trebles: David Willcocks once made a recording with trebles, but in that performance the solo parts were sung by more than one treble singing unisono. Apart from the fact that it isn't very convincing from a musical point of view, it is certainly not historically justified. As Edward Higginbottom and the Choir of New College Oxford are strongly attached to the historical performance practice it is only logical that this particular version has been chosen. The conductor himself explains why he wished to record Messiah with his choir: "The occasion of my thirty years at New College, coinciding with by sixtieth birthday, provided the impetus to get it done in 2006. The project is also, and very decidedly, a celebration of the Choir's continued excellence in the field of performance." He continues: "The recording is intentionally a manifesto: here is what a collegiate choir with trebles can achieve, admirably supported by one of UK's leading early music ensembles, the Academy of Ancient Music." I know many recordings of New College Oxford, and its qualities are beyond all doubt. And it is not surprising that the highlights of this recording are the choruses, which show the virtues of this fine choir.

At the same time I have to say that the interpretation as a whole doesn't quite satisfy me. There are several factors which are responsible for this.
Often I find the tempi too slow. The accompanied recitative which follows the overture, "Comfort ye", is a striking example. Here there is also a lack of declamation which is particularly important in recitatives, even in accompanied recitatives where the orchestral accompaniment reduces the freedom of the singer. I am also disappointed that Toby Spence hardly adds any ornamentation here. The alto aria, "He was despised", is very slow too: it takes more than 12 minutes, about two minutes slower than Christopher Hogwood's recording of the Foundling Hospital version, and he is anything but fast. The orchestra sometimes doesn’t do enough to express the text, like in the accompanied recitative "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth". Too often there are too few dynamic accents in the orchestral playing. But in the chorus "Since by man came death" the contrasts in the text are worked out very well.

The three trebles do their job quite well, although they all have a slight tremolo in their voice now and then. I don’t see the point of dividing the recitative "There were shepherds in the field" over two trebles. One of them sings the words of the angel, which suggests this is a role – but Messiah doesn't have any roles, and Hogwood rightly decided to use just one voice. Otta Jones is the best of the three, giving a fine performance of "How beautiful are the feet". Henry Jenkinson's interpretation of "I know that my redeemer liveth" could have been more energetic and lively. Iestyn Davies has a nice voice, but uses a little too much vibrato, in particular on unaccentuated notes, and especially on the lower ones. I can't imagine this to be intentional. Toby Spence and Eamonn Dougan both also use too much vibrato, and I think both could have been more generous in regard to ornamentation. And I am sorry to say that their singing never really touched me.

Like I said the choruses are the best part of this recording. In most of them we find the kind of declamation and the dynamic accents sorely missing in the solo sections. The tempi are mostly more satisfying too. Examples are "He trusted in God" and "The Lord gave the word". But the choruses "Halleluja" and "Worthy is the lamb" are less exuberant than they should be in my view.

Time to sum up. It is fully understandable that Edward Higginbottom wished to record Messiah with his choir. And from a choral perspective this release is well worth listening to. But I had liked to hear an interpretation with more differentiation and more contrasts. For me this recording is a little flat, sometimes even lacklustre. The choice of soloists is less than ideal too, in particular regarding tenor and bass. As much as I prefer performances of this kind of repertoire with male voices only, I don't think I am going to return to this recording very often.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Choir of New College, Oxford
The Academy of Ancient Music

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