George Frideric Handel
Leslie Fagan, Soprano
Sasha Cooke, Mezzo-soprano
Cullen Gandy, Tenor
Kevin Deas, Bass
Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra
Kent Tritle, Music Director and Conductor
In the interests of full disclosure I should reveal that your reviewer is a very elderly Messiah junkie who heard his first performance at a time when the earliest stirrings of the period performance movement were perceptible only to those with unusually sensitive ears and the world was still trying to wrench its collective consciousness away from six years of cataclysmic warfare. The event in question took place in December 1945 at the Pavilion, Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, only a few miles from the devastated port of Southampton, and was given by the Bournemouth Municipal Chorus and Orchestra. The orchestra, which has since achieved great distinction as the Bournemouth Symphony, had been reduced to twenty-four players during the war and while that number might now be considered appropriate for a Messiah performance, in 1945 it must have been quite a task to produce an orchestra deemed fit for Handel’s masterpiece. One difficulty in particular proved too much for the organizers. No trumpeter was available who was willing to risk exposing himself and his instrument to “The trumpet shall sound” and the trumpet stop on the organ had to be used. One result of our expedition from an outlying village was I was able to hear the great tenor Heddle Nash when he was still in his prime but my most treasured memory is of the wonderful Welsh contralto, Nancy Evans, whose singing of “He was despised” broke the heart even of a twelve-year-old schoolboy. Sixty-six years later, when we have all the benefits of period performance, such things are less likely to happen.
From that time on, I don’t think a year has gone by without my hearing at least one Messiah. Until my brother and I grew up and left home, the BBC’s annual broadcast performance was a family affair. As members of our parish church choir, my parents, my brother and I had sung some of the choruses and we followed the BBC performances with our vocal scores. No one was allowed to join in—this was for listening, for experiencing to the full the emotional impact of each successive number.
Period performance began to be a serious issue in 1950’s, first with the publication of scholarly editions of the work and soon with serious attempts to reproduce the performance practice of the eighteenth century. Before that, what we had heard as Handel’s Messiah was, unlike Ivory Soap, considerably less than 9944/100% pure. Mozart, of course, had created an admirable version with additional orchestral parts that, among other things, made the keyboard continuo unnecessary, and various nineteenth century characters had made further additions as they thought fit. The versions that I heard at Bournemouth and on the radio undoubtedly included a great deal that would have surprised Handel and may possibly have delighted him. I particularly remember how disappointed I was, maybe sixty years ago, when I first heard “The people that walked in darkness” without Mozart’s chromatic wind parts. Now, on the whole, I prefer it Handel’s way. By 1960, thanks particularly to Thurston Dart and Yehudi Menuhin, some of us had been quite surprised to find that many baroque orchestral works, including Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, worked extremely well with one instrument to a part and with correct treatment of such things as appoggiaturas and trills, but memory suggests that it took singers a little while longer to catch on. This, no doubt, was partly because some of the ornamentation is extremely difficult for singers to execute, a fact that was at times painfully obvious at the performance that I attended on Tuesday evening.
As time went on, elaboration of the printed score went beyond correct ornamentation. Eighteenth century composers expected singers and instrumentalists to embellish their melody lines and there are treatises by such baroque and early classical eminences as J. J. Quantz and C. P. E. Bach explaining how, why and when this should be done. Such elaboration, when done in moderation by an expert singer can certainly intensify the musical experience and if you have doubts about its value you should listen to the incomparable Heather Harper in Colin Davis’s classic 1966 recording of the Messiah. (Phillips Duo 438356) Like his colleagues, Raymond Leppard and Charles Mackerras, Davis also put a considerable spring into the step of many of the numbers, usually greatly to their advantage. It’s my deeply considered opinion that the period performance movement reached its zenith in the two decades from 1960 to 1980. Since that time it has become almost unthinkable for anyone to perform baroque music with anything except period instruments, the escape clause being that it’s allowable to use modern instruments as long as they are made to sound as much as possible like their baroque ancestors. There has been a great deal more historical research into tempo, rhythm and articulation and to my ears the results have often been grotesque. I’ll specify that my dislike of the sound of the period orchestra, even when the instruments are played in tune, is a very personal thing and that when my friends tell me they love it I believe them. It is also true that Messiah is a work of such greatness that it can stand up very well to the many different treatments to which it has been subjected.
Even my prejudices can be overcome. In December 2009 I attended a performance of Messiah at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in which the Rebel Baroque Orchestra played admirably in tune. The choir, a professional body of about twenty-five singers, was in an interregnum after the departure of Owen Burdick and before the appointment of Julian Wachner and we had the great good fortune to hear the work conducted by Jane Glover. I have never been to a performance in which it was so obvious that everybody— chorus, orchestra, conductor and audience—was having a wonderful time and it wouldn’t have mattered what kind of instruments were being played. Everything was utterly spontaneous—obviously the result of very careful preparation and complete trust between all those taking part. Last year I went to the corresponding performance conducted by Julian Wachner and was faintly disappointed, feeling that the spontaneity had been replaced by a dutiful adherence to all the conventions of current period performance and, perhaps, by a desire on the part of the new conductor to show that he could touch all the correct bases, including the now fashionable indulgence in arbitrary tempo and dynamic modifications. One thing that particularly bothered me was that the embellishment of solo vocal lines showed a tendency to get out of hand and go beyond enrichment into mere display, while exposing the singers’ technical deficiencies. “I know that my Redeemer liveth” was painful to listen to. After this experience I decided to try a different brand of Messiah and now, at last, we come to the performance I am supposed to be reviewing.
First a few statistics: the Musica Sacra orchestra, a modern instrument group, consisted of 14 strings (5,4,3,1,1), two oboes, one bassoon, two trumpets, organ and tympani. This struck me as rather small for a space the size of the Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, especially when one considers that Handel used 25 strings, (8,7,5,3,2), four oboes, four bassoons and two horns in addition to the trumpets, drums and organ in his Foundling Hospital performance of 1754. So Handel had nine instruments available for his bass line as opposed to the three on Tuesday. I thought that the organ might reinforce the bass line but it was, in fact, almost inaudible. This was a considerable disadvantage also in airs like “I know that my redeemer liveth,” for which the full score provides only three staves, one for the upper strings, one for the vocal part and a figured bass from which a keyboard player is expected to improvise in such a way as to fill in the harmonies missing from the printed score. In this case the harmonies that the organ ought to have provided were to all intents and purposes absent and all we could hear was top and bottom with nothing in the middle. I discovered afterwards that there were knowledgeable people in the audience who hadn’t realized that there was an organ.
The Musica Sacra chorus consisted of 28 professional singers. Handel had 32 at his first Dublin performance and 19 at the Foundling Hospital, so it looked as though the balance might favor the singers. This turned out not always to be the case, as was immediately suggested by the diffident first entry of the altos in “And the Glory of the Lord.” This may seem to be an unfair comment since the opening phrase starts quite low in the alto range and rises only to the A above middle C, and in the circumstances one can’t expect a group seven altos to make very much noise. This, however, is very much the range in which the group has to work throughout the oratorio. Unlike Beethoven, who frequently sends his altos up to the E or even the F in the higher octave, Handel and Bach, rarely expect even the C above middle C. Beethoven, of course, was a case in himself and Verdi was much kinder to his altos, at least in his Requiem. In any case, the real problem was a matter of quality rather than quantity, a lack of firmness and conviction that I experienced from time to time from the whole chorus and not just the altos. As far as the latter are concerned, it may be urged in mitigation that Handel was writing for male altos who produce a very different kind of sound.
The soloists were all accomplished singers who gave a great deal of pleasure throughout the evening and the problems that they encountered were for the most part connected with the articulation of ornaments and rapid passages. There was difficulty in coordination between Cullen Gandy, a tenor with a fine voice, and the orchestra in “Comfort Ye” and he sounded quite uncomfortable and smudgy throughout “Every Valley.” Things improved considerably later on and I remark only with sorrow that he yielded to the modern convention of taking the final cadence of “Thou shalt break them” up an octave, thus ruining the beautiful arc of the piece as a whole. One would have thought that the two high A’s that Handel provided would have been enough but it seems that a third one is now mandatory. The solo role traditionally thought of as contralto was taken by the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Ms Cooke has a very pleasant voice but again there were some difficulties of coordination and articulation. She lacked the strong chest register necessary for “But who may abide” and made us realize once again why this air traditionally became the property of the bass. The bass, Kevin Deas, has a magnificent voice and his ability to negotiate the difficult runs in “For he is like a refiner’s fire” with a minimum of smudges was very impressive even though the orchestral accompaniment was surprisingly phlegmatic. Leslie Fagan has a clear, beautiful, well-focused voice but in order to cope with some of the runs in “Rejoice greatly” she had to leave out some of the notes. I assume this was something that just happened on this particular occasion and was not the result of a prior decision.
Many of the choral numbers were taken at the fast tempos that have become customary today and the chorus sometimes sounded breathless and slightly ragged. A more insidious problem with the fast tempos—and this applies equally to chorus, orchestra and soloists—was that the effort actually to articulate the notes sometimes robbed them of musical impact.
There were some wonderful things in the course of the evening, the highlight being “The trumpet shall sound,” in which the rich, cleanly articulated voice of Kevin Deas and the marvelous trumpet-playing of Scott McIintosh made a thrilling combination. The chorus improved as the performance went on and excelled itself in the Hallelujah Chorus, which naturally produced a standing ovation, and “Worthy is the Lamb.” The final Amens were very exciting and the audience responded with great enthusiasm. It was not a perfect evening but, like everyone else in the room, I thoroughly enjoyed it.