Musica della sera

Handel’s Messiah

Program Notes for Musica della sera broadcast of Thursday, December 6, 2012 (see playlist).

American Bach Chorus and conductor Jeffrey Thomas

Well, ’tis the season!

Last Thursday’s Musica della sera featured the full Messiah, performed by the American Bach Soloists, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, a live recording (though you’d never guess, based on the excellent recording quality!) made in 2005. Featuring Arianna Zukerman, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Steven Tharp, tenor; William Sharp, bass; Elizabeth Blumenstock, principal violin; and John Thiessen, solo trumpet, and the orchestra was performed on period instruments.

The interesting thing about this recording is that it’s based on Handel’s original 1741 score. Personally, I’m most familiar with the hybrid Schirmer Edition, originally published in 1912, based on one of Handel’s revised scores.

According to the liner notes of the recording by Jeffrey Thomas:

“We can reconstruct any of nine known versions of the work: the autograph score of 1741; the first performance in Dublin in 1742; four performances at Covent Garden in 1743, 45, 49, and 1750; a performance at London’s Foundling Hospital in 1759; Handel’s conducting score; and a performance in Dublin 1761. The particular dispositions and arrangements of arias and choruses are unique in each one. It is entirely possible to assemble a particular compilation of the various pieces of the work that was never heard by Handel, and — considering the work’s mutability at the hands of this composer — it could hardly be judged wrong to do so. In fact, most mperformances heard today represent exactly such a hybrid version. And among recordings of the work in the last decade or two, one can find an ingenious set of compact discs that can be programmed… to play virtually any version of Messiah known to us [geek alert!]; that is, all but one.

It is the so-called autograph score version of 1741 that has remained practically unheard and that we have performed and recorded here. When Handel took his score to Dublin and began the rehearsal process, changes would be made even before the premiere. This is a fairly common practice when producing the first performance of an opera or a play: a composer’s wishes are often subjected to the stark realization that the practical considerations of the performance — available forces, ability of the performers, etc. — might demand alterations. This was certainly the case for Handel, who was already a very experienced opera composer, and probably quite used to this process of last minute revisions. But what interests us the most, given our opportunity to choose a particular version, is the truly original concept of the work, before any revisions, alterations, or concessions to the initial performance environment.”

So this is a fascinating recording from a musical history point of view.

Performance-wise, this is a fantastic recording, one that I hope will become a “standard”, among those set by (my favorites) Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert and Martin Perlman and the Baroque Orchestra & Chorus. Incredibly, this was recorded live, which blows my mind — I had no idea that there was any audience present at all. No coughs, sneezes, errant squeaks, whispers, or, indeed, any applause were audible. Their recording engineer is masterful! The only indication was some minor sloppiness in some of the early choruses; e.g., dragging against tempo; consonants that could have been crisper. I’m sure that if this were a studio recording, those problems would have been fixed.

These criticisms are so incredibly minor, though, especially in comparison to the stunning lightness of being of the performance. Jeffrey Thomas’ control over the choir is remarkable, reigning them in to just barely caress the “And He Shall Purify” and not forcing a general LOUD through the Hallelujah chorus and the final Amen. The choir’s performance was clean, engaged, enthusiastic, without the full-on blow-the-top-off-your-head fortes — so easily done in the Messiah; rather, the dynamics are expressed creatively and musically, showcasing the professionalism of the ensemble. The highlight of the soloists for me was the countertenor, Daniel Taylor. He perfectly captured the androgynous quality of the alto voice, and his “Oh thou that tellest good Tidings to Zion” was a joy. This performance makes this well-known work new again, which, in this season, is nigh on impossible.

The last time I played the Messiah on Musica della sera was in 2009, and I’m glad to have done it again! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed discovering and sharing this version with you.

─Meera Collier-Mitchell

Note: click portrait image at top to link to an interview with Jeffrey Thomas by American Bach Soloists Executive Administrator Jeff McMillian.

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