Handel’s Messiah

 

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

St David’s Hall, Cardiff

 

The rediscovery of how to play antique music came a while after the music itself was revived. Some of it had enjoyed temporal continuity, even wide popularity. For example, there hasn’t been a year since Handel’s Messiah was first performed, in Dublin on April 13, 1742, when some kind of presentation of it was not a staple of British musical life. It is a work appropriate for both the birth of Jesus and the death and resurrection, so there are always at least two opportunities in the year to stage it.

‘Stage’ might seem an odd word choice, but as an oratorio, Messiah represents Handel the opera composer turning to a different genre when his Italian operas fell out of favour in London. He was ever the businessman-explorer, looking for the alternative, more profitable route. To oratorio, (which originated in the Oratorian congregations founded in the 16th century by St Philip Neri and later co-existed with opera as an often undistinguishable form), he brought his unquenchable histrionic fire. Even in the pious air ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’, from Messiah, there is the drama of febrile but unabashed certainty, and no-one ever thought the ubiquitous Hallelujah Chorus was anything less than a fearful mode of celebration and very Old Testament. Moreover, the whole work is a triumph of sustained, chorus-led creativity, able to wear almost every kind of clothing.

All music – how it should be played, how it should sound – is fixed at the moment of composition. In theory, every performance should attempt to abide by the composer’s instructions, when they are indicated in any detail on the score. Music being fugitive, however, musicians are licensed within reason to decide for themselves not what the composer instructed but what was meant by the instructions

Even in the pious air ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’, from Messiah, there is the drama of febrile but unabashed certainty, and no-one ever thought the ubiquitous Hallelujah Chorus was anything less than a fearful mode of celebration and very Old Testament.

Changes in performing methods and instrument-making confound the issue. Up to a point, music played differently from its original conception or on later instruments with revised and/or improved methods of execution, won’t necessarily ruin the spirit of the original. This is pre-eminently true of Handel’s Messiah.

However much it is harried and worried, it is never in danger of becoming a musical carcass. Only bad musicians will do it a disservice, as they will any other music. The grandiose and slightly ridiculous habit of the Victorians and Edwardians of performing festival Messiahs with multitudes of choristers and instrumentalists was slow to subside. Excesses were common in the South Wales valleys, where the work’s popularity had much to do with the prominence Handel gives to the chorus (choirs here were once legion, overweight and gladiatorial) and with the pervading fervour of Non-Conformism that embraced Messiah as both a grand spiritual re-affirmation and a universal statement of hope and redemption.

It’s no coincidence that Sir Malcolm Sargent, then Dr Sargent, happily conducted in Wales and, according to his biographer, Charles Reid,  ‘exulted in the power and lustre of his Welsh voices’; though, to be fair, Sargent recognised that there were rough edges to be shaved and raw, over-zealous delivery to be refined and subdued, and he set about achieving those. Nevertheless, Sargent it was in later life who revelled in the massed choirs which offloaded Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall and who partly inspired today’s curious liking for singalong versions of it – the so-called ‘Messiah from Scratch’. Perhaps the invitations to all-comers simply reflect the number of choristers active and retired who still cannot throw away a chance to sing those evergreen tunes yet again.

Between Sargent’s visits to Wales in the 1920s and his later metropolitan showmanship, more Baroque music resurfaced and attention was given to reproducing it as it was conceived – playing in period, as the saying goes. This involved research into both performing practice of the time and the instruments employed. Copies of authentic instruments were produced and decisions made about the right numbers of performers to match the correct way of playing. For Baroque string music, this meant gut strings and special bows (snakewood round stick, frog and adjuster, etc) and for playing it, no vibrato; for brass instruments, valveless or piccolo trumpets; for percussion, rudimentary kettle drums; for continuo, harpsichord, lute (theorbo, chitarrone, etc), chamber organ, though the composer‘s requirements for the basso ensemble varied; for singers, a reduction in number, among other things. Lean productions of music hitherto characterised by multitudinous serried ranks now vie with less cumbersome versions, so that purist and more liberal-minded listeners are both catered for.

Along with the dissipation of too authoritarian a view in these matters has come an acceptance of the new ways and surprise that they are not always followed. It’s disconcerting to see the professional journeyman chamber orchestras that regularly accompany choral societies in Wales these days reaching for the bright-toned high trumpets yet employing a vibrato string technique more appropriate to the Palm Court. It no longer sounds right. Nor should it.

Lean productions of music hitherto characterised by multitudinous serried ranks now vie with less cumbersome versions, so that purist and more liberal-minded listeners are both catered for.

The only quarrel with the BBCNOW’s performance of Messiah last December was that it deployed the full number of its excellent chorus. Criticism was muted by the way its musical director, Adrian Partington, managed in places to make it sound a third smaller than it really was. The orchestra, much reduced and as authentic as it could be (though some might argue with that) demonstrated how much modern symphony orchestras have adapted to the earlier style, most notably in the vibrato-less strings and an altogether crisper and faster delivery. It’s not just a question of forming oneself into a tinier group: with that comes exposure of each section and the need for attention to more isolated detail. It was a performance that married the economic and the populous.  A compromise then, weighted even more in favour of the gloriously antiquated by, among others, Philippe Schartz’s piccolo trumpet at the end, and timpanist Steve Barnard’s Baroque drums.

Baroque singing is another acquirable art. One can justifiably say, though, that Messiah might have been written for the four soloists featured here, the light oratorio voices of sopranos Elin Manahan Thomas (deputising at short notice for the indisposed Susan Gritton), contralto and Handel specialist Delphine Galou, and tenor Topi Lehtipuu, balanced by the rolling-eyed, Old Testament presence of bass Matthew Brook. Some might find the soprano tessiturae on these occasions an acquired taste but none of these singers is locked in dramatic relationship with the others as they would be in Handelian opera. By and large we are listening to singers surrounded by their own inviolable – and in the case of the ladies, often vulnerable – aura. One wouldn’t want Jessye Norman at her ferocious best in one of these roles. Conductor Francois-Xavier Roth shaped a brisk-flowing performance with strong dynamic contrasts in both choir and orchestra and one proving again that Messiah can withstand almost all permutations of style without losing its ability to lift the spirits. After it, one began to feel that many of the slimmer, ‘authentic’ versions need ballast. Music is ever elusive. These are musical matters only insofar as music matters. It’s all interesting stuff.