Christmas Messiah

If it’s Advent season–the time immediately preceding Christmas–then it’s time for ballet companies to erase their deficits with the help of Tschaikowsky and The Nutcracker.   It’s time to shop for presents, time to eat drink and be merry.


Balthasar Denner's portrait of Handel

And –in Toronto at least–it means many versions of Handel’s Messiah.

  • The Toronto Symphony presents something they call “Toronto’s Favourite Messiah” possibly based on ticket sales  (five performances in a bigger venue)
  • Aradia ensemble’s “Dublin Messiah
  • Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (four performances plus an additional sing-along Messiah).

In preparation I thought I’d pull out my three historically informed performance (aka “HIP”) Messiahs.  Handel’s great oratorio is in three parts, the first of which pertains to Christmas.  With the seasonal connection in mind, I’m going to briefly compare Part One in those three recordings.

Whose recordings?
1)     Trevor Pinnock leading The English Concert & Choir in 1988, with Arleen Auger, soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, contralto, Michael Chance alto, Howard Crook Tenor and John Tomlinson, Bass.  I obtained this in my first blush of HIP-ness, around 1989, when I went a little nuts for this kind of performance, also buying all of Norrington’s Beethoven & Schubert symphonies, works by Schumann & Mendelssohn and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
2)     Paul McCreesh leading the Gabrieli Consort & Players, recorded in 1996, with Dorothea Röschmann soprano, Susan Gritton, soprano II, Bernarda Fink, Contralto, Charles Daniels, tenor and Neal Davies, Bass.  I’d heard excerpts of this on CBC, and needed little persuading.  Previously I’d bought multiple versions of Wagner’s Ring, and now it seemed I was likely to do the same with Messiah
3)     Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading Concentus Musicus Wien in 2004, with Christine Schäfer soprano, AnnaLarsson, Alto, as well as Canadians Michael Schade, Tenor and Gerald Finley, Bass.  I only heard of this in 2010, so I’ve lived with this one for only a few months.

I assumed I’d remain loyal to Pinnock no matter who else came along.  I’ve seen this phenomenon before –perhaps most tellingly with Solti’s Ring—where people become attached to the first version they encounter.  I think the same thinking is behind the disrespect current casts get on Saturday Night Live, compared to the first cast who, after all, were part of a cultural happening.  But never mind, the relative merits of different SNL casts is a topic for another post.

Pinnock continues to wear well, even though the sound is better on the two more recent recordings.  When it comes to the final two numbers—“Worthy is the Lamb” and the Amen—I am still very loyal to Pinnock, whose grandeur and clarity slays me.  While I am wandering in the other parts of Messiah, my single favourite chorus –”Lift Up Your Heads”—is given its most persuasive performance in McCreesh’s reading, a stunning piece of drama as one part of the chorus interrogates the other (and sorry I cannot show these to you via youtube).

But wait, I’m only supposed to talk about Part One!

I am briefly going to puff out my chest as a Canadian, concerning the men on the 2004 recording conducted by Harnoncourt.

Michael Schade’s English is wonderfully peaceful in expressing the sentiment “Comfort Ye”.  As an ambassador for peace, he is wonderfully tranquil.  If I were carrying weapons I would have laid them down in homage.  In the aria that follows he proclaims the good news of “Ev’ry Valley”.

Gerald Finley

Canadian Gerald Finley

The other Canadian? Gerald Finley is completely believable portraying God.  I never really bought those lines until now: when the bass sings “Thus saith the Lord” and then proceeds to speak as though he were the Lord.  Finley’s God is not one of those pompous thunderers I’ve heard elsewhere, self-conscious or grandiose.  Finley is fearless and direct, and as a result scared me more in these passages than I would have thought possible.

But wait.  Whereas my other two recordings are from English ensembles & choirs, Harnoncourt works with two European women soloists & a European choir.  How do they fare? Astonishingly well, it turns out.  This choir is clearer in some of the truly difficult numbers than either of the other two ensembles.

  • Exhibit A: “For Unto Us a Child is Born” is deceptively difficult (I recall a conductor telling us, his choir, to beware of the temptation to sing “for unto WUSS a child is born”).  Every syllable is clear.
  • Exhibit B: “And He Shall Purify”.  Harnoncourt had a rather clever idea, which is to say, he takes this chorus at a slower pace than what I am accustomed (either in the two recordings or in live performances I’ve been to).  The chorus articulates the coloratura flames as exquisitely as if they were truly flickering tongues of fire, undulating with perfect clarity.  I was prepared to dislike what Harnoncourt was doing, not least because of his foreign-born chorus, but came around in spite of myself.  This is the version of this chorus that I now prefer, startlingly original and yes, very very beautiful.

There’s something wonderful in each of these recordings, each of which has held my attention for awhile.  But recently, in an interview with Kevin Mallon, I realized –oh no– that there are other recordings I need to obtain, given that I don’t own either of his two favourites (John Eliot Gardiner & Christopher Hogwood).  I suppose that will have to be remedied at some point.

And while we’re on the topic: Merry Christmas.

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