Messiah – A Sacred Oratorio in three parts to a libretto compiled by Charles Jennens taken from the King James Bible and Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer
Dorothee Mields (soprano), Benno Schachtner (alto), Benedikt Kristjánsson (tenor) & Tobias Berndt (bass)
Recorded September 2019 at Margarethenkirche, Gotha, Germany
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC30499 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 17 minutes
One problem with works as central to the canon as Handel’s Messiah is that they become so taken for granted, and also almost assumed to have emerged fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, that it becomes easy to overlook the fact that the process of their production was a much more gradual, even messy, affair. That was particularly true in the Baroque and Classical periods when composers almost always wrote for a particular occasion which may have required amendments to be made in anticipation of the performance. If these compositions were fortunate to be revived, they would usually require further tweaking to suit the coterie of performers tasked with executing them, or any other changed circumstances such as location or venue.
This was the case with most of Handel’s oratorios, as well as operas, and Messiah was no exception. It was unusual that the premiere of this work (1742) took the composer away from London, in this case to Dublin, and necessitated some alterations to the score he had set down in a typical burst of creativity in August and September 1741. Even so, subsequent productions of the work in London from 1743 onwards elicited further alterations, resulting in the form of the oratorio that is almost always heard today, albeit that conductors sometimes discreetly conflate some of these later amendments, rather than presenting what Handel himself performed in any given year. Those later, minor variations are much less significant, however, among themselves than the difference they constitute in comparison with the first version of the work heard in Dublin.
Increasingly aware as performers and audiences are today that there is generally no such thing as a definitive version of many such stageworks from the eighteenth century, it is perhaps surprising that more interest has not been taken in rediscovering the Ur-version of this warhorse, even if the later editions make for a much more rounded, grander work.
The main differences, as heard in this release from Hans-Christoph Rademann and the Gaechinger Cantorey, are these:
· Both parts of the air ‘But who may abide’ – ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire’ constitute a single, simple recitative for bass;
· ‘Rejoice greatly’ is substantially the same music, but couched in a livelier swinging 12/8 meter rather than 4/4 (i.e. bars of four beats of three quavers each rather than two);
· ‘How beautiful are the feet’ is a duet for two altos, ending with the dramatic irruption of a substantial chorus in material that was not re-used in later versions;
· ‘Their sound is gone out’ does not appear, as this was added by Handel later;
· ‘Why do the nations rage’ is a rather shorter aria, which ends abruptly with a brief recitative;
· ‘Thou shalt break them’ is simply a recitative;
· ‘O death where is thy sting’ is a similar but not identical setting, using much the same material as the familiar version (admittedly often omitted) but with significant differences.
Some arias are also scored for different voices than the now-familiar versions. It would be interesting to see how many people would notice the difference if they were surreptitiously introduced into concert performances, in particular whether ‘Rejoice greatly’ makes a livelier impression.
Rademann uses historical instruments and performance practice, which many listeners will be much more familiar with, even in this work. But even so he secures such a fresh and lithe reading of the whole score that it certainly strikes the ears anew, quite aside from the textual differences. It has become a cliché to observe that ‘authentic’ performances can be like stripping back the accumulated layers of varnish and dirt, but here rhythms and articulation are spontaneously, lightly sprung as though one is hearing the work for the first time, as for instance the sense of expectation conveyed in the one-to-a-bar alacrity of ‘And the glory of the Lord’. The interpretation avoids becoming hard-driven in terms of tempo or musical rhetoric and thereby seeming as though deliberately making points, not least because Rademann’s approach is consistently adopted throughout the work. The tragic drama of ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ could warrant more deliberation over its striking music, with some rubato perhaps, but the dissonances in the dotted chord progressions are appropriately emphasised.
Sometimes it may seem as though this light and airy manner with the music is in danger of washing out its deeper shades and nuances. In fact it is rather that contrasts and heavier textures are softened with a sort of musical sfumato technique. That enables subtle degrees of expression in the music, as the yearning oboes in the texture of the Overture’s opening attest; likewise the slithery, but not thick, semiquavers of the violins in ‘For behold darkness shall cover the earth’ giving way to a wonderful shaft of light at “but the Lord shall arise”; or the tantalisingly quiet, luminous opening of the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, only gradually building up to overt triumph at “the kingdom of his Lord”.
As implied by these examples, such expressive gestures serve the musical setting of the words, placed within the context of an overall finely balanced, poised reading of the work, rather than imposed for their own sake. An orchestra of twenty members (including the only intermittently utilised timpani and trumpets) and a chorus of twenty-two would replicate the comparatively intimate scale of that first performance at Dublin’s Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street in contrast even with some of the grander renditions the work later received under Handel’s own supervision.
Although Handel’s performances in Ireland would probably have drawn upon some of the members of its capital’s two cathedral choirs for some of the solo numbers, Rademann uses the four named soloists throughout, except to bring alto Tobias Knaus forwards for the well-blended account of the duet version of ‘How beautiful are the feet’. Nevertheless the vocal quartet adopts a generally collegiate and sober demeanour in their delivery. As the soprano, Dorothee Mields, does not enter in this version until the sequence of recitatives beginning ‘There were shepherds’ which she conveys, fresh-toned, with wonder and delight, continuing through to a sprightly account of ‘Rejoice greatly’. Her only other contribution, in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, is dignified and noble.
Benno Schachtner projects a more fruitily colourful performance as a male alto (in this respect not strictly authentic, as Susannah Cibber was the soloist at the premiere). His fairly tense nasal tone brings more the quality of an operatic countertenor to the part, which slightly jars with the overall demure atmosphere of the whole reading, for instance in the consoling lilt of ‘He shall feed his flock’, but certainly it adds variety, and in the regretful ‘He was despised’ Schachtner points up the mocking of Christ in the middle section with suitable venom. Benedikt Kristjánsson possesses a beautifully clean and mellifluous tenor voice, all the more welcome in the fairly high range which Handel gives to the part, such that the performance here never comes under a strain – a rare thing even among Baroque tenors. Some may prefer more grit in the music but I, for one, could listen to him endlessly, particularly for the compassionate character he brings to the series of settings starting ‘All they that see Him’. Comparatively more gravitas is cultivated by bass Tobias Berndt, but again he is capable of making rhetorical points without resorting to growling or over-exertion, and his flexibly light, open voice suits the overall interpretation of the oratorio, even if in some instances his vowels do not sound quite English. For anybody who cares about this work as anything other than a tired staple of Christmas festivities (or sometimes Lenten observances too, as it was originally intended for) this recording will be a revelation – both on account of its musical text and its interpretative style. Some may be less inclined towards the pared-down approach to this composition as lacking depth or grandeur, but there is an undeniably subtle beauty in this account which is hard to resist. That alone justifies its addition to the already extensive Messiah discography.