Handel’s Messiah isn’t just for Christmas (or Lent) but is a masterpiece that has endured across the generations since its 1742 premiere and survived intact the various performing traditions and arrangements to which it has been subjected. Sir Andrew Davis’s “New Concert Edition” of the oratorio sidesteps the ‘authentic’ practice of recent decades and reclaims the work for a ‘modern’ symphony orchestra and chorus in such a way as to revive, to some extent, the traditions of the 19th-century and earlier half of the 20th in filling out and extending Handel’s scoring.
That practice goes back at least as far as Mozart’s re-orchestration of 1789, and the most notorious, perhaps, was Eugene Goossens’s attempt to throw the kitchen sink at it in the version made famous by Sir Thomas Beecham’s recording. Davis’s arrangement is more subtle than that, however, insofar as he doesn’t seek to apply a new coat of varnish to give the picture a new tint so much as to add filigree decoration or ormolu as a craftsman might to his handiwork.
A good example is at the beginning of ‘His yoke is easy’ where different instruments – not in Handel’s original score – provide a counterpoint to complement the choral entries, flutes with the sopranos and clarinets with the tenors. A solo clarinet is used throughout ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, which gives that otherwise staunch confession of faith a touchingly humane, even vulnerable quality. The most evident addition is the battery of percussion, but this is only deployed sparingly to add localised points of colour and help to instil a sense of drama to a work that can often easily sound more like an extended meditation: in the right hands this sequence of Scriptural passages set to music can have as much dramatic potency as any of Handel’s other oratorios.
Despite such modernisations to the score, however, the influence of ‘period’ practice is latent in the generally swift and buoyant way with quite a few of the numbers. The strings are clean and crisp, rather than lush and glutinous, and often the orchestra is reduced to a chamber-like ensemble to highlight part-writing between voice and instruments, so this version has little in common with those bloated arrangements. The levity of this performance is particularly apparent in the lilt which obtains in ‘And the glory of the Lord’, the 'Pastoral Symphony', ‘He shall feed his flock’ and ‘How beautiful are the feet’, notated in triple or unequal compound time, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir follow suit. In ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ the dotted rhythms are smoothed over too much, but more urgency is saved up for ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’, from which an inexorable momentum is then built up by the choir towards ‘He trusted in God’ A strong sense of pace is further brought about by Davis’s cutting of some of the items in Parts Two and Three.
Even so, despite the relative swiftness of this interpretation, without the bite that might be given by the presence of a harpsichord and a smaller ensemble, in terms of timbre the work tends to sound more dilated and solemn than in the hands of ‘period’ practitioners. The overall effect then, to use an architectural analogy, is somewhat like the consciously more extrovert neo-Baroque style such as the interior of London’s Coliseum, as compared with the real Baroque of such theatres as those at Versailles and around Italy. But Davis’s arrangement transcends any one specific style, and emphasises trends in musical history earlier than Handel, and also those later ones which the work influenced. There are hints of Purcell (such as the bare open fifths and octaves on the final chords of ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and the Overture), and Schütz with reedy woodwind and brass punctuating the a cappella choruses in the sequence of Part Three starting ‘Since by man came death’. In the other direction the vitality of some of the choruses looks ahead to the Masses of the great Viennese composers in the Classical period, even to the spaciousness and breadth of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, whilst the motivic connection between ‘And with his stripes’ and the ‘Kyrie’ of Mozart’s Requiem is immediately obvious.
The four vocal soloists are strongly characterised in their rather different ways. Erin Wall sings with freshness though sometimes a touch too much vibrato. But there is a palpable sense of the divine breaking through into the earthly realm in ‘And the angel said unto them’, making one realise that Handel knew exactly what dramatic effect would result in reserving the soprano’s first entry for the appearance of the Angel of the Lord to announce the birth of Christ. Elizabeth DeShong is deep-toned in the alto role (as they never seem to be called these days), at times sounding school ma’am-ish, and her account of ‘He was despised’ is notable for sounding stern and authoritative, even outraged, rather than expressing the Messiah’s resignation to suffering. The tenor numbers are sung cleanly and brightly by Andrew Staples without even a hint of strain in the high register, which can stretch some singers. In contrast John Relyea exudes considerable vocal heft but that can be at the expense of precision in the melismas of ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and ‘Why do the nations rage?’.
Overall this is a musically satisfying account and, although some may find Davis’s version (recorded for the first time) frivolous, or an irrelevance, for many it will surely cast another angle upon this perennial work, by breathing new life and enabling new things to be heard in it. It fully justifies itself as a welcome addition to the extensive catalogue of recorded Messiahs, and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as a routine traversal of Handel’s score. The booklet includes the sung text and a note from Andrew Davis.