Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Messiah Cometh -- Yet Again

Listen to ten different performances of a symphony of Brahms and you will hear the same notes, in the same order. Tempi may vary. Dynamics may vary. But you will always be listening to the same work. In my distant youth, Handel's Messiah was a stack of fragile 78 rpm records (played by me on a wind-up gramophone). Main singers in my 78 pile were Isobel Baillie (soprano), and Gladys Ripley (contralto); conductor was Malcolm Sargent. Writing this, I am listening to my latest Messiah, with a mainly French ensemble directed by Hervé Niquet; soprano 1 is Sandrine Piau (hurrah!); soprano 2 is Katherine Watson; contralto is Anthea Pichanick; tenor is Rubert Charlesworth; bass-baritone is Andreas Wolf. All are extremely good (and not a castrato amongst them). I am often doubtful about tenors, but I make an exception for Rupert Charlesworth here; an excellent singer, with superb diction.

And what of language? English people tend to bristle when non-English singers tackle English words (but nod approvingly when English speakers sing in German, French or Italian). English disapproval also extends to American accents, even though in the music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, American pronunciation is probably more “authentic”. But American accents bring memories of Popeye, Donald Trump, and the Lone Ranger; not a good thing to conjure up when listening to Handel or Purcell. Apart from a number of non-english “R”s, nothing ruffled me with the English language in this recording. The English “R” is certainly not an Italian R, nor a German R, nor a French R. It is some sort of Brexit R. (Not even the Thai “R”; a very fine hotel, the Royal River, in Bangkok came over when referred to by the locals as the Loyal Liver).

Compared with Gladys Ripley, Isobel Baillie and Malcolm Sargent in my youth, tempi are now swift. I was constantly reminded that Handel's feet and pedigree were anchored firmly in Italian opera and in the trios and duets that he wrote in Italy in his youth (some of which found their ways, many years later, re-cycled into the Messiah). Pitch is baroque pitch, which means the singers do not invoke tension when they are obliged to sing above the stave. Handel was careful about the range of his singers (one reason why there are so many versions of his works, including the Messiah, where Handel re-wrote and adapted to the raw singer material with which he was faced). The choir here is a reasonable size, as it should be for Handel; Handel would have had no truck with people like Joshua Rifkin and their minimalist econo-forces.

My father (a double bass player) always maintained that Handel wrote his Messiah in order to give musicians many money-earning concert opportunities around the Christmas period. He was probably wrong: Handel wrote music in order to make money for himself. He was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of the early 18th century (albeit that Handel's music will last a lot longer than that of his English rival some 275 years later). Handel died a rich man, despite having rarely having a patron or salaried employment. He is often passed over as a “great” composer, even though Mozart and Beethoven fully appreciated his genius. Anyway, in 200 years time, I predict that Handel's music, including his Messiah, will still be delighting lovers of great music. And this latest offering, from HervĂ© Niquet and his forces? I love it! Some things in (musical) life do get better and better, and Handel's music, in particular, has benefited enormously from greater understanding and appreciation. Anyone who loves Handel anchored in Italian opera, rather than in the Church of England, will enjoy this recording with its excellent singers, superb choir, professional orchestra, and very expert recording and balance. Perhaps, somewhat arrogantly, I can suggest that we now know Handel a lot better compared with immediate previous generations. He is not just the composer of the Messiah, of the Water Music, and of the Fireworks music. He was a prolific composer, like his contemporaries Johann Sebastian Bach, and Antonio Vivaldi. He was one of the truly great composers of the Western World.

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