May 14, 2020


Handel, arranged by Sir Eugène Goossens and Sir Thomas Beecham: Messiah. Penelope Shumate, soprano; Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano; John McVeigh, tenor; Christopher Job, bass-baritone; Jonathan Griffith Singers, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Griffith. Signum Classics. $25.99 (2 CDs).

     An oddly compelling exercise in wretched excess, the Goossens/Beecham version of Handel’s Messiah stands in a long line of modifications of Handel’s 1741 original, including quite a few by the composer himself – and one created by Mozart in 1789 and intended to be sung in German as Der Messias (K. 572). It is arguable whether there is “blame” of some sort to be attached to the many changes made over the centuries to Messiah, but if there is, it traces to Handel himself: he created numerous versions of the oratorio for different singers and different performance spaces, as was customary in his time, and it was only natural for others, impressed by the subject matter and the beauty of the presentation, to want later audiences to hear the story and the music in ways to which their “modernized” ears would be better adapted.

     It is important, in an age now largely focused on performing music as composers intended it to be performed, to understand just how non-unusual this sort of alteration was. Handel’s 1741 instrumentation for Messiah consisted only of two trumpets, two oboes, two violins, one viola, timpani and basso continuo. In his version, Mozart had the horn, not the trumpet, play The Trumpet Shall Sound, added three trombones, switched Handel’s organ for a harpsichord, added the clarinet, changed Handel’s soprano-and-alto to two sopranos, and made numerous other alterations, including cutting some numbers altogether and shortening others. In all, Mozart changed about two-thirds of Messiah, while specifically stating that he was not trying to “improve” it but to adapt it for new purposes – specifically, for private performances in noble houses rather than the public, opera-like theatrical presentation for which Handel intended it.

     So when Beecham commissioned his onetime assistant conductor, Goossens (who had also been a violinist in Beecham’s orchestra), to produce a Messiah suitable for performance in the large concert venues common in the mid-20th century, using orchestral and vocal forces that people had come to expect, he was merely asking for the latest in a long line of adaptations intended to communicate the underlying meaning and message of the music in a form that would be more palatable to a later audience and more readily understood by later listeners. Beecham also wanted a commemoration of the bicentenary of Handel’s death in 1759, and Goossens obliged with a version that includes four horns, three trombones, tuba, piccolo, contrabassoon, two harps, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum – plus a full modern orchestra and large chorus. Adding cymbal clashes to For unto Us a Child Is Born, creating an accelerando in the Hallelujah Chorus, and otherwise expanding and inflating pretty much all aspects of Messiah, Goossens produced a version that may be called monumental and celebratory by its proponents (including Beecham), but deemed a bloated excrescence by detractors. Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded the Goossens version in 1959, and that recording became initially famous for its grandeur and enthusiasm, then notorious for being tremendously overblown as the historical-practice movement in music took hold.

     The 1959 Beecham performance remained the only recorded version of the Goossens adaptation of Messiah not because of changing musical tastes but because of the most prosaic of reasons: a legal dispute, with both the Goossens and Beecham estates laying claim to it. Now that that matter has finally (after more than half a century!) been resolved, an all-new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has again had the opportunity to perform this Messiah, now under the direction of Jonathan Griffith in a new Signum Classics recording.

     The result is strange, fascinating, sometimes moving, sometimes almost laughable because of the extent to which the arrangement now sounds overdone. Today’s listeners are likely to know Messiah in one or another of its Handelian forms, performed by a small complement of singers and instrumentalists, whether or not historical performance practices are rigorously followed. The opulence and sheer massiveness of the Goossens/Beecham version will therefore come as something of a shock: it is all so big, so endlessly insistent on its own importance, that the rather modest and elegant libretto by Charles Jennens, based in large part on the Old Testament rather than the New, seems scarcely equal to the task of penetrating music that insists on being delivered with splendor and intensity. The four soloists are all quite fine and clearly committed to this project, especially clear-voiced soprano Penelope Shumate, who invests all her lines with emotional as well as vocal strength. The choral forces are enthusiastic, their pronunciation readily intelligible and their sense of the music’s rhythms quite clear. And the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra delivers a smooth, warmly massive sound under Griffith, with playing that is skilled and heartfelt.

     This is sure to be a divisive Messiah, since it so clearly flies in the face of modern scholarship and performance practice, yet equally clearly reflects the time of its creation as surely as Mozart’s K. 572 reflects the time and circumstances of its origin. Listeners already familiar with the 1959 Beecham recording, with which many older lovers of Messiah literally grew up, will sweep aside any questions of the appropriateness of this version and simply enjoy it for its mixture of musicality and nostalgic value. Listeners hearing a grandiose version of Messiah for the first time will likely be less forgiving of this version’s excesses and may well find the performance rather elephantine. Messiah is truly a work for all times, musically transcendental despite its libretto’s clear focus on one specific form of religious belief, experience and expression. From a strictly musical perspective, the time for the Goossens/Beecham Messiah has passed, and that may be just as well: Messiah has an elegance, simplicity and directness in the original 1741 version and Handel’s subsequent modifications that it certainly lacks in this recording. But the Goossens/Beecham Messiah has an undeniably fascinating celebratory quality that makes it well worth hearing as an alternative approach to the material – as well as an aural documentation of the tastes and expectations of musicians and audiences alike in the middle of the 20th century.

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