ON RECORDING MESSIAH "LIVE" — by Jeffrey Thomas
I have always subscribed to the idea that a "live" recording of any work should be released only if its artistic standards can be compared favorably to a studio recorded version, and if the particular circumstances of the performance(s) merit special attention. In the autumn of 2002, the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts opened on the campus of the University of California at Davis. It is a stunning facility, and ranks among the finest performing arts facilities in the world. The main performance space, Barbara K. and W. Turrentine Jackson Hall, is an 1,800-seat concert venue with acoustics that are a dream come true for both performers and audience members alike. Two consecutive performances there in December 2004 provided us with an extremely valuable opportunity to produce a live recording. One can certainly assume that there are indeed many recordings of Messiah available, so what will be especially distinctive about our reading and recording of it here?
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, 1745, 1749, and 1750; a performance at London's Foundling Hospital in 1759; Handel's conducting score; and a performance in Dublin in 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 its composer—it could hardly be judged wrong to do so. In fact, most performances 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 (according to a guide included in the enclosed booklet) to play virtually any version of Messiah known to us; 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 performance—available forces, abilities 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.
For example, here and there Handel deleted a few measures of music that add up to barely a minute or two. He composed them initially, and they even wound up in the first version of his conducting score (a neatly prepared volume that would serve for more than fifteen years), although in some cases their deletion is indicated by white strips of paper glued on top of the notes. We have restored these extra measures, which in some cases are barely noticeable (an extra two bars in "Ev'ry valley"), but in others constitute full da capo versions of the soprano aria, "Rejoice greatly," and the bass aria, "The trumpet shall sound," rather than the truncated dal segno versions that would later be indicated. In another case, you will hear a few measures of music that you almost certainly have never heard before (the opening of the bass recitative, "Thus saith the Lord"). Handel's first idea was later altered, showing us that he changed his mind. But the first version of those notes was complete and fully orchestrated, so we believe that it shows his original intentions. And in still other cases, you will hear versions of arias that were later substantially recomposed: the original bass version of "But who may abide" was later embellished with florid fioratura passagework to capitalize on the virtuoso capabilities of the Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni, and the soprano aria, "How beautiful are the feet," is presented here in its original da capo form, including the text "Their sound is gone out," which was later transformed at least three times (into an arioso for tenor, a four-part chorus, and a duet for two altos).
Handel was as skilled at revision and transcription as Johann Sebastian Bach. For Messiah he borrowed music from some of his Italian vocal duets for several of the choruses, and wrote as many rearrangements of the solo arias as can be imagined. Certainly, a composer is allowed to change his mind! There is a notion, however, that while Bach's revisions were probably always enhancements to his original music, Handel's revisions might have been little more than concessions to the forces he had available to him; more specifically, Handel often had to rework the arias in order to take advantage of the soloists he had at his disposal, and in the case of the premiere, he may have had to compensate for the soloists' inabilities or, in the worst cases, the lack of some proper soloists at all. In Dublin, a great amount of solo work was assigned to a soprano named Signora Avolio, one of the few professional musicians that were available to Handel on that occasion. He probably knew this would be the case in advance of the first performance, and his composing score indicates those considerably substantial original assignments to her. The remaining arias call less demandingly on an alto, tenor, and bass. At the time of the work's composition, Handel would have expected those soloists to be drawn from the ranks of the assembled choirs.
Handel composed Messiah during the three weeks between August 22 and September 14, 1741, and premiered the work in April of the following year. Prior to 1732, he had composed only operatic works in Italian for the London theatres, but the ten years that followed would prove to be a period of experimentation and change. Perhaps spurred on by new competition with a rival opera company, in 1736 he turned to the composition of an English oratorio, a setting of John Dryden's ode for Saint Cecilia's Day titled Alexander's Feast; or the Power of Musique. The text of Alexander's Feast was brought to Handel's attention by Newburgh Hamilton, who would provide some much needed assistance to Handel with the intricacies of setting the English language to music. (Hamilton was later afforded a gift in the composer's will for helping to "adjust the words" of his English compositions.) Hamilton wrote that Handel had "with Pleasure undertaken the task" of setting Alexander's Feast. Indeed the experience was so successful and satisfying for Handel that, during the nine days between September 15 and 24 in 1739, he composed his setting of another of Dryden's odes, A Song for St. Cecilia's Day. This "Pleasure" that Handel had newly found in the composition of oratorios was something of an economic and spiritual windfall for the composer. The sad truth is that twenty years earlier, he had begun to suffer financial difficulties, and by the early 1730s his professional life was simply unraveling. He was nearly bankrupt, and had fallen very much out of the critical favor of the aristocratic public for whom he had composed his Italian operas. They were expensive to produce, and not accessible enough for his audience. But by the time he set his pen to paper in the autumn of 1741 to compose Messiah, things had taken a turn for the better.
It was a time of transition for the composer: he had already begun to explore the possibility of accepting an invitation for an extended stay in Dublin, but proceeded nonetheless to address his annual task of composing new works for his next London season. Messiah was really the idea of the librettist Charles Jennens (pictured left), who wrote in July of that year: "Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but, I hope to persuade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him...I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah."
Handel scored Messiah for chorus, soloists and an orchestra of only strings, continuo, two trumpets, and timpani—a rather modest combination. There are strong indications that Handel had Dublin in mind while he composed the score, and therefore the relatively small forces required for Messiah are a reflection of what Handel expected would be available to him there. Additionally, he may have taken Jennen's recommendation that Messiah be used for a benefit performance, perhaps utilizing a smaller orchestra to economize on expenses. It was the custom, however, to have oboes double soprano voices, and bassoons double the continuo line. It seems reasonable to utilize these slightly fuller forces. Had the circumstances been more lavish, Handel certainly would have done so, and indeed might have done so, even though there is no evidence to prove it.
In November, having ultimately accepted the invitation, Handel arrived in Dublin. He received a warm welcome, and performed his first concert there to a sold-out house. The first performance of Messiah took place on April 13, 1742, in the new music hall on Fishamble Street, and was a tremendous success. The review that appeared in Faulkner's Dublin Journal proclaimed: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear." But the librettist did not agree. Jennens greatly valued his text, and a few years later wrote that Handel had "made a fine Entertainment of it, tho' not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retained his overture obstinately in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel but much more unworthy of the Messiah." Messiah had blurred the distinctions between opera, oratorio, passion, and cantata, and perhaps Jennens found this to be a fundamental fault.
Over the course of the first few performances of the work, Handel had chosen among his soloists the actress Mrs. Susannah Cibber, who had previously suffered greatly under the clouds of scandal, and a popular comic actress named Kitty Clive. In fact, the performance history of Messiah under the composer's direction is a wildly varied one, to say the least. The first performance in Dublin utilized only two singers of any real distinction, two Dublin cathedral choirs (from which were drawn the male voice solos), and the rather meager orchestra, as mentioned above. By a few years later, however, the orchestra had grown considerably, augmented by oboes, bassoons, and horns. The number of vocal soloists also increased, and by 1750 the famous castrato Guadagni was among them. Its various performance venues included the Dublin Cathedral, Covent Garden, and London's Foundling Hospital.
Like any great work, Messiah is indestructible, even when subjected to the most unorthodox or unflattering performance schemes. It has survived all sorts of mistreatment, but always shines brightest when graced by historically informed performance practices. It is especially then that the true splendor of Handel's sublime eloquence triumphs. In this performance, we welcomed occasional embellishments and ornamentation by the singers. And we added horns to the tutti sonority, not because we think Handel utilized them in Dublin (although we know that he used them later in London), but because horns doubling trumpets was a more or less common practice, and only enhances the celebratory nature of the two great choruses, "Hallelujah" and "Worthy is the Lamb." There are inevitable compromises in terms of extraneous noises when producing a live recording, but we are most thankful to the members of our audiences on those two evenings, who proved that even a throng of patrons can be as quiet as church mice.
Finally, recordings—whether "live" or produced in a studio—can provide opportunities that are essentially lacking in a concert performance. We were able to recreate an aspect of historically informed performance practice that is otherwise quite impractical: until the middle of the nineteenth century, and even beyond, choruses were quite often placed in front of their accompanying orchestras. The rhetorical expression of text was a driving force of the Baroque period and is, indeed, one of the primary goals of all of our performances. In Messiah, the chorus, in addition to the soloists, carries the dramatic action of the libretto, and placing them in the foreground of the listener's experience gives their orations the prominence that they deserve.
While Messiah is certainly considered by any audience to be a "Grand Musical Entertainment"—as it was sometimes called in Handel's day—the composer is purported to have said, "I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better."
— © Jeffrey Thomas
PART THE FIRST
RECITATIVE, accompanied – Tenor – Comfort ye, comfort ye my People, saith your God; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her Warfare is accomplish’d, that her Iniquity is pardon’d. The Voice of him that crieth in the Wilderness, prepare ye the Way of the Lord, make straight in the Desert a Highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:1–3)
Producer and Digital Mixing: Jeffrey Thomas
Editing: Jeffrey Thomas and Steven Lehning
Recording Engineers: John La Grou and Hans Apel
Production Assistants: Philip Daley, David Amrein, Eric Ruud
Recorded in performance on December 17 and 18, 2004, in Barbara K. and W. Turrentine Jackson Hall in the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of California, Davis.