Messiah [1742 Dublin Version]

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Messiah [1742 Dublin Version]

Susan Hamilton (soprano)
Annie Gill & Claire Wilkinson (contraltos)
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass)

Dunedin Consort & Players
John Butt (harpsichord)

Recorded 1-4 May 2006 in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: December 2006
(2 CDs) [CD/SACD]
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes



This representation of the first performances of “Messiah” in Dublin in April and June 1742 often sounds powerful despite the small forces used. As was the convention at that time, soloists in the recitatives and arias are also members of the chorus. John Butt’s careful researches made it necessary for him to make certain decisions as to which settings of the texts are most likely to have been used in those early performances. For example ‘But who may abide…’, a bass aria in this version (indeed it sounds best as a bass aria despite Handel’s later employment of an alto), has an alternative setting as a tiny recitative and this 27-second alternative is given as a supplement at the end of the disc.

The converse is true in the case of the pre-‘Hallelujah’ aria ‘Thou shalt break them…’. Here the alternative recitative version is used in the main performance and the more familiar two-minute aria is given as a supplement. I admit that I programmed my player to incorporate the full aria version in the overall performance.

Butt’s continuo playing is excellent – direction from the harpsichord has great advantages at those times when the conductor is also the accompanist. The orchestral strings avoid vibrato and Butt points the rhythms very incisively indeed. The dance element always shines through, especially in ‘Rejoice greatly…’. Here Susan Hamilton’s youthful soprano rejoices not in the manner of pious obedience but instead conjures up a vision of a maiden dancing in a flower-filled meadow.

The contrast between this singer and the comforting and confident contralto Annie Gill seems to underline the parallel contrasts of mood between the texts allotted the respective voices. Although Annie Gill is principal contralto, Clare Wilkinson takes ‘He shall feed His flock…’ and its preceding recitative with warm elegance, while Heather Cairncross takes part in the duet ‘How beautiful are the feet…’. There is no reason to suppose that Handel used the same artist for every solo aria.

In the large-scale settings the modest forces contrive to make considerable impact. Butt’s achievement of forward flow assists greatly and careful balancing means that ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Worthy is the Lamb…’ and ‘Amen’ have considerable force, despite the choir numbering around only a dozen. The singers are not overpowered even when the conductor gives trumpets and timpani their head. The musicians seem to be at one with the conductor’s view of the style of the 1740s. Nicholas Mulroy is an accurate and expressive tenor who never overdoes the heroic episodes and bass Matthew Brook takes care not to exaggerate the moments of weight.

In the same way Handel’s treatment of the text lets it speak for itself – this is not opera and I am sure that the composer would scarcely have recognised the vibrato-laden, melodramatic view of the music taken by some 20th-century soloists. In the 1742 version of the score Handel is reticent about overstating dramatic effects as witness his lyrical treatment of the passage ‘For He is like a refiner’s fire…’. Compare this with his better-known, fierce, fast-paced revision of later years. Even the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ is light and sprightly and its Siciliano rhythm is firmly stressed.

Again it all goes back to Butt’s recognition of the underlying dance constituent. The question is: will admirers of this great masterpiece, more familiar with later versions, be prepared to accept Handel’s original score, conditioned as it was by the limited forces available? I feel they will, especially as the selection of solo voices for particular arias seems attuned to the music rather than, as occurred in later performances, the availability of famous singers.

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