Handel: Messiah (1754 version). Sandrine Piau and Katharine Watson, sopranos; Anthea Pichanick, contralto; Rupert Charlesworth, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass-baritone; Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet. Alpha. $27.99 (2 CDs).
It was not easy making a living as a composer in the 18th century. Most creators of music also had to be performers, and had to attach themselves to the courts of various nobles in order to earn enough money to live on. Even composers with generous and musically knowledgeable patrons, such as Haydn, had to spend much of their time catering to the whims of the court, which in Haydn’s case meant composing quite a number of operas for puppets. Composers originally noted for their performing abilities, such as the very young Mozart, frequently had a very difficult time making the transition to being primarily creators of music and only secondarily presenters of it. And even when a composer was highly successful with the music he brought into being, he had to reckon with numerous pirated editions, unauthorized and butchered performances, and attributions to him of works that he did not write and whose poor quality did nothing for his own reputation.
This was a time before royalties – that is, payment for one’s creative endeavors, not to be confused with royalty, without which most composers would have been unable to function at all. It was a time when business-savvy composers wanted their works performed as frequently as possible, by as many organizations as possible, because that was where the money was: pack the performing space with people who would pay to see and hear the music, and the composer got to keep a good percentage of what we now call the box-office receipts.
All this explains why the notion of a “definitive” version of a hyper-popular work such as Handel’s Messiah is a problematical one. Handel was a big success and a good businessman, quite willing to reuse plenty of his popular tunes and even full arias in new contexts so that people would pay again and again to hear them – and equally willing to modify his compositions for whatever forces might be available for a given performance, thereby ensuring yet more box-office receipts. Thus, there are about a dozen different versions of Messiah, and all of them are equally authentic even though they differ quite a bit from each other, sometimes rather dramatically. One of the least-often heard is the so-called Foundling Hospital version of 1754, which Handel created because of an unusual situation in which he had access to (and expectation of using) five soloists. The Foundling Hospital performance of Messiah is important musicologically because it is the first for which full details of the orchestral and vocal forces survive. The orchestra included 15 violins, five violas, three cellos, two double-basses, four bassoons, four oboes, two trumpets, two horns and timpani. The chorus consisted of 19 singers, six of them trebles and the remainder (all of them men) being altos, tenors and basses. The five soloists also sang in the choral portions of the work. But despite its acknowledged historical value, this 1754 version is rarely heard, undoubtedly in part because of the five-soloist requirement. It is therefore especially enjoyable to have it in a performance as beautifully balanced, finely tuned, well thought out and sophisticated as the one led by Hervé Niquet and featuring his ensemble, Le Concert Spirituel, which he has now led for 30 years. This is an outstanding group that plays with what sounds like perfect intuitive understanding of the music and a level of chamber-music-like conversational communication that fits Messiah surprisingly well. Couple the ensemble’s excellence with the firm understanding of period style shared by all the soloists, and the unobtrusively excellent sound on this two-CD Alpha release, and you have one of the most moving and interesting Messiah performances currently available – no matter what the version of the music.
But the version does matter, and not just because this one has the five solo singers. Niquet, a supremely thoughtful conductor of music of this time period, sees Messiah as an oratorio with operatic aspiration, or perhaps an opera in oratorio guise. He focuses on the story arc of the material, bringing out the dramatic continuity of the tale of Christ’s predicted birth, actual arrival and ministry, death and resurrection. It is, in fact, a highly dramatic story, but it is one that generally tends to be shorn of drama in the name of piety. Not so here. Niquet sees the spiritual meaning emerging through the dramatic events, and to that end chooses tempos and balances that highlight the work’s many intense moments as well as its pervasively inspirational ones. That produces a highly intriguing view of Messiah, and combined with the choice of this specific version of the score, makes for a kind of re-perception of a work that listeners who have not yet heard this recording will only think they know well. There may be no definitive Messiah score – or performance – but it turns out that is all to the good, since it makes it possible for someone as knowledgeable and intelligent as Niquet to find and present one of the oratorio’s less-known versions in such a way as to intrigue, enthrall and deeply move anyone who listens to it.
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