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Five Messiahs

I do have the grace to feel rather embarrassed about this. But, nonetheless, I have willingly - even eagerly - allowed it to happen. See, the fact is that I now own five recordings of Handel's Messiah.

Excessive, you say? Obsessive, even? But they are all different, I swear! After all, practically every performance of the piece given in Handel's lifetime was different from the others, as he re-wrote arias on the hoof to suit the singers he had available at the time. And that's before you even get into matters of interpretation and choice of performers.

So here is a list of my five recordings (in order of acquisition) and the reasons why I need to own them all:

1. Charles MacKerras 1967 (acquired c. 1998)
The first recording I acquired was a taped copy of an old LP my Mum had. It has a pretty impressive cast - Elizabeth Harwood (soprano), Janet Baker (contralto), Paul Esswood (countertenor), Robert Tear (tenor) and Raimund Herincx (bass) - and for its time, I think it was aiming towards an 'authentic' period sound. Nevertheless, compared to more recent recordings, it still belongs very much in the 'Romantic' school of interpretation - swirling strings, soaring vocals, lots of legato and vibrato, etc. Also, the LP wasn't in the best condition, so the sound-quality on my tape leaves something to be desired. It was pretty inevitable that I was going to want another copy soon enough, then - ideally on CD.

But that's not to say I've left this one behind since I've acquired others. I'm a person who loves to see and hear as many different takes on the Messiah as possible - hell, I've even been to see it performed by a brass band in my time. So sometimes, I'm in the mood for a Romantic Messiah - and that's when I put this tape on. And there's one other important feature it offers which has often drawn me back to it. For reasons I'm not entirely clear about, the team behind it made one unusual choice amongst the many variant arias which Handel left to posterity. Instead of the more commonly-recorded version of the soprano aria, 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion' in 4/4 time, they recorded an alternative version in 12/8. And you know what? It's way better! Lilting and fluid, it draws you along with it, swaying as you go, in a way that the 4/4 version just can't. Ever since I first heard it, I've felt sorely disappointed every time I've attended a performance or heard a recording which opts for the 4/4 version instead, and I'm heartily grateful for having been made so aware of it by this LP.

2. Sir David Willcocks 1973 (acquired c. 1999)
My first copy on CD, I bought this mainly because I was a student and it was cheap (£9.99 in the 'HMV Classics' series, I think). I did choose intelligently amongst the cheap versions, though. Already, I was not merely replacing my taped copy, but supplementing it with a different interpretation. This time, the recording is much more in keeping with what's now considered to be an 'authentic' Baroque style. It is also distinguished by being performed by male voices only - not a particularly authentic choice for this work, since Handel certainly did use female performers for it (e.g. Mrs. Susannah Cibber), but nonetheless appealing to my taste for countertenors. The alto solos are taken expertly by James Bowman, while soprano solos are sung by boys from King's College Choir (who collectively provide the choruses). The boys work well in the section immediately following the Pastoral Symphony ('There were shepherds abiding in the fields' etc.), where they suit the meaning of the text at this point by providing an ethereal sound and evoking school nativity plays, but I would have preferred a female soprano elsewhere. James Bowman, though, can't be faulted, and he's the main reason why I still regularly listen to this CD - with the reappearance of Robert Tear in the tenor role as a close secondary reason.

3. Taped copy from Grace (acquired c. 2000)
I can't check the exact recording details for this one at the moment, as for various complicated reasons to do with my current living situation, it's in a box in my office. However, its distinguishing feature is that it is one-voice-to-a-part throughout, so that the choruses sound more like chamber music than something designed for large-scale public performance. It's certainly interesting for that reason, but I haven't warmed to it or listened to it anything like as much as my other recordings - hence it being in a box in my office. Still, if I didn't already own it, I'd want a copy of it just so I could give it a good listen. So it's worth having.

4. Harry Christophers 1986 (acquired 2005)
In contrast to the all-male David Willcocks recording, this basically plays the role of a 'normal' authentic-style performance in my collection. There's kind of not much to say about it for that reason: nothing particularly unusual or controversial about the interpretation, the performers or the choice of variant arias. Just a good solid performance, again with an excellent cast - Lynne Dawson (soprano), Catherine Denley (contralto), David James (countertenor), Maldwyn Davies (tenor), Michael George (bass). If I was recommending a recording for somebody who only wanted to own one copy of the Messiah, it would be this one.

5. Nicholas McGegan 1991 (acquired 2007)
And now, my most recent acquisition! What's exciting about this one is that it includes not only a 'straightforward' recording of the whole work, but also recordings of all the known variant arias in addenda at the end of each disc. There's even a chart at the end of the CD booklet which shows you which variants you should program into your CD player to hear the work as it was performed in Dublin in 1742 or 1761, on various occasions in Covent Garden, at the Foundling Hospital or as written in the original autograph scores. So I can now hear not only that lovely 12/8 version of 'Rejoice greatly...', but also any other variant arias I like, as often as I like. This is absolutely brilliant, because many of them I have never heard at all, and others only once or twice in live performance. So I'm finally getting to hear bits of this long-loved work which are completely new to me.

There are downsides even to this recording, though. It's another version in the 'authentic' school, but although the performances are perfectly competent throughout, they somehow don't seem to manage to rise above that. There's not quite enough of a sense of humanity coming through for me. Also, several movements are taken significantly faster than I like, and all of the singers are to my taste over-ornamenting the arias, and in most cases not even with very interesting ornaments - mainly just extra runs inserted between notes a third or more apart. Why, even that 12/8 'Rejoice greatly...' isn't, I think, performed as well as it is on my Mum's old 1963 LP. What a pity I can't combine the technical interest of this one with the better performance-quality of the Harry Christophers one...

So it seems that my search for the perfect Fantasy Messiah continues. I can't see that it'll ever be quite entirely satisfied - unless perhaps I create my own amalgam by burning tracks from different performances onto a CD of my own. Which would be weird, and I'm pretty sure I still don't have all the perfect raw materials anyway. So here's to further additions to my collection in the future!


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2007 04:31 pm (UTC)
Ahaha.. we sure ARE similar in a lot of things. I have the same thing about the Verdi Requiem. I own 5 versions of it on CD, and a lot more pirated here and there on the Internet. And I haven't yet found the "perfect" complete one either!!! Alas, the singers I'd love to have all together for it are all long dead!
Jan. 6th, 2007 04:51 pm (UTC)
Hee - once again you save me from the need to feel embarrassed about my own behaviour by admitting to doing the same things! You are a great comfort to have around, you know. :)
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
heheh .. how did I not think of this before?? you need to subscribe ASAP to a community I love to pieces: queeroperapunks. There are LOTS of people like us in there ;) Some of them own as many as 20 versions of the same opera, oratorio or requiem... !
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:33 pm (UTC)
Ooh! *joins*
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
the guys are a bit.. *quirky* sometimes, but you can bet that if you search for something, there you will find it. Particularly malibran has an INCREDIBLE collection of recordings, a lot of them unpublished bootlegs, he knows more about classical music recording history and singers than anybody else I know.
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
Well, there's my recording of Herreweghe, with Schlick, Scholl, Padmore and Berg as the soloists... *hint*
Jan. 6th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC)
That does sound like a good line-up! Don't suppose you could see your way to sending me a copy of it, could you? :)
Jan. 6th, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC)
the messiah

The best performance you will ever be satisfied with is the one you hear in your head when you sit down with the score and mentally recreate a version that's even better than the one you might put together from the various recordings you now own.
Jan. 6th, 2007 09:31 pm (UTC)
Re: the messiah
Oh, believe me, I know - I have done just that!
Jan. 13th, 2007 02:54 am (UTC)
Lo Pen Happy 2007

I tghink you and my dad could have a lengthy fascinating conversation about this, just make sure I am not anywhere in the vicinity at the time! Actually I lie I think I am now sufficiently middle aged to want to be there...I notice a similar thing listening to different recordings of Wagner. Though thinking about it is it so different from hearing Hurt performed by Johnny Cash and NIN if you see what I mean?
Jan. 13th, 2007 10:42 am (UTC)
Yes, indeed - and in fact I have more than one recording of some pop / rock songs, too, and enjoy listening to each for different reasons.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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