Monday, December 22, 2014

Handel's Messiah

This is ma Once or Twice a Fortnighty post from December 22, 2014.

As evidenced by other discussion threads on OperaLively, this is the time of year for staging Handel’s enduring oratorio, Messiah. (The other time of year, of course, being Easter).

The Messiah discography and the traditions surrounding its performance are extensive, and require a few comments.

The oratorio contains 53 individual sections, and it is customary – in live performance anyway – to omit about a dozen of them. Some “purists” may feel slighted by that long-standing tradition, but I consider that many sections can be skipped without really affecting the overall opus as they are sometimes quite introspective in nature and a shorter “live performance” isn’t worse for wear, if you ask me…

Speaking of purists, I’ve heard Messiah performed under “authentic” conditions, some of them adopting original orchestration - classical-era musicians added woodwinds – and more British/Victorian era conditions where there’s “strength in numbers”. As with a lot of music, there’s nothing sacrilegious about doing things one way or the other, as Messiah is about the tone, the text and the interpretation.

I read recently in a review that, like we do for Bruckner symphonies, it is important to identify the “edition”: the 1998 Clifford Bartlett edition seems to be the recent “darling” edition, supplanting the Watkins Shaw edition that many ensembles used in the 80’s and 90’s. Both editions keep to the Handel model of three “parts”, Part Two ending with the famous “Halleluiah Chorus”.

Today, however, I wanted to share a different interpretation, that precedes the HIP movement by a couple of decades, and takes liberties in the arrangement of the sections that few musicians would dare to attempt nowadays.

It should first be stated that in one way or another every performance of Messiah is a version of the work - whether because of cuts (almost always model), or drastic variation in the size of orchestra and/or chorus, or differences in instrumentation (there is much scholarly debate on the subject of Handel's original orchestral intentions), or in the use of Mozart's additional wind parts (some of which have been proved to be by Hiller, not Mozart, or for many other reasons too technical to discuss here.
This quote is taken straight from the original liner notes accompanying today’s performance on vinyl by the conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

Indeed, there is such a thing as a “Bernstein Edition” of Messiah, and it finds its inception in a live performance by Bernstein and the New-York Philharmonic that pre-dates his tenure there as music director – Carnegie Hall, 1956.

Bernstein in those early years, and throughout his life, was a maverick of sorts, looking for new ways to approach just about everything he performed. Here are the two main things you should know:

  • He used the “Victorian” edition by Ebenezer Prout (with a real continuo instead of the wind quartet suggested in this edition). In some movements the Mozart/Hiller instrumentation (additional winds) is used.
  • Bernstein saw the second part of the work as falling into two sections: switching them put the "joyful" music of the latter half of Part II immediately after Part I (the "Christmas" section), reshaping the whole work into two large parts rather than three.

The result? Well, it sure isn’t for the purists… The quest for authenticity has overtaken interpretation in many ways, and a conductor recording 'Messiah' without attempting a historically-informed style of performance does so at its own peril! And nobody would dare introduce the level of revision that Bernstein did for this 1956 recording and the Carnegie Hall performances which preceded it.

Sometimes, you have to take the moment in, and admire the “sporting element” (as Bernstein and his friend and mentor Dimitri Mitrpoulos would say). Bernstein's rearrangement of the sections works as the dramatic sequence he intended, and his reasons for doing it make sense. He made no claims to authenticity and didn't apologize for mucking about with a "masterpiece."

This is a powerful, vibrant 'Messiah' with elegant solo singing and a chorus which could sing softly when necessary and let the great choruses rip through. Although not for purists, it is both a fascinating document of Bernstein's concept of the piece and a performance well worth listening.

Hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685 - 1759) 
Messiah, HWV 56
Libretto by Charles Jennens after the Bible
Adele Addison, soprano
Russell Oberlin, countertenor
David Lloyd, tenor
William Warfield, baritone
Westminster Choir
(John Finley Williamson, director)
New York Philharmonic
Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Part One: Christmas Section

Part Two: Easter Section

Detailed Order of Numbers:

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