ENDNOTES, December 2016
In this edition: a ‘grand’ Messiah from Sir Andrew Davis in Toronto * Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Westminster Abbey * A new concert hall in Antwerp.
All over the country, orchestra and choirs are preparing for performances of Handel’s Messiah, which – alongside Bach’s Christmas oratorio – is, perhaps, the quintessential oratorio for this season. Newly-arrived from Chandos Records is a handsomely presented two-CD set of the work (recorded in Toronto): the cover, a splendid detail from the Renaissance painting, Annunciazione by Pulzone, and a detailed booklet, containing some wonderful stills from the live performance from which this ‘Messiah’ is taken. The work is described thus:
‘Messiah (1741) – On a compilation of texts from the Bible and Prayer Book Psalter by Charles Jennens (1700-1773). New concert Edition by Sir Andrew Davis – In Memory of My Mother and Father.’
And it is a Messiah with a difference: a version which takes the work away from the astringent period performances which have become the norm, re-establishing an oratorio for the large-scale concert hall in the old style of Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Thomas Beecham. Our contemporary conducting knight, Sir Andrew Davis (always at home with large-scale forces) has devised an impressive (but never overbearing) full-scale, modern-instrument edition; deploying the forces of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – with full-bodied playing and voices, although finely-honed and with penetrating, persuasive detail throughout. Recorded before a capacity audience at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, the venue acts as the perfect recording studio: a modern hall, with none of the dryness which often besets such venues, and a reverberation and sense of “air” and space which add extra majesty to the great choral moments – not least their first entry in the section which, for me, fully sets the work in motion: ‘And the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ (Allegro giocoso – Adagio). However, I sensed a slight hesitancy in the choir at the very beginning here, although almost immediately the whole range of voices suddenly “catches” and expands to full force, celebrating the glory of the passage – like an engine roaring into life, or an orator suddenly getting into his stride.
Unlike “pure” versions of Messiah, Sir Andrew Davis’s version uses a very 19th-century array of percussion – side drums in the bass’s early part, ‘Thus saith the Lord’; sleigh bells in the famous Hallelujah Chorus; and a great clang of percussion – evoking Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev – in the opening of the finale: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’ Of his opulent version, Sir Andrew Davis writes:
“I am far from being the first to elaborate the orchestration of Messiah… Mozart’s version is well known… Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous recording which features Jon Vickers, uses the imaginative but overblown (and occasionally even verging on vulgar) orchestration made especially for the project by Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962). In 2010 I wanted to do a ‘grand’ version with the TSO and reviewed all the above before deciding to undertake something new myself. It took me ten months, during which time it dominated my life! My aim was to keep Handel’s notes, harmonies and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra.”
This powerful, and often exciting version of Handel’s masterpiece deserves to be approached with an open mind. The dedicated exponents of period authenticity will, no doubt, dislike Sir Andrew’s Technicolor additions, but his realisation of the music – music that is great in its own right, however you play it – cannot be faulted. One of the last parts of the oratorio for the bass part (in this recording, John Relyea – who has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York) is the sublime – ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’ – a mystical moment, embodying all the stillness of Christmas night. Just savour the interpretation on this new recording: pure, unchanged Handel, and a tribute to the true passion of a remarkable performance.
For conductor, James O’Donnell, the sound-world of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) was very much to the fore at his 1st December performance of the Christmas Oratorio at Westminster Abbey. The St. James’ Baroque orchestra – small-scale, with eight violins, brass instruments which the composer would have recognised, chamber organ and two ‘Oboe da caccia’ (an oboe equivalent of a hunting horn) – sounded “soft” (or softly-focused) in the towering acoustic and dimly-lit distances of the Abbey. The pleasing delicacy of the instrumental playing was fully complemented by the excellent choir of Westminster Abbey; with the Evangelist performed by Julian Stocker (tenor) who has appeared regularly with the Tallis Scholars and The Cardinall’s Musick. Other recitative parts were taken by bass soloists, Jonathan Brown, Julian Empett and Robert Macdonald – with some striking counter-tenor singing from the talented Tristram Cooke, David Martin and Simon Ponsford (members of the choristers).
The three-part Oratorio was written for the Christmas season of 1734-35, beginning on Christmas Day and ending on the Epiphany, in January. Trumpets, and sturdy, purposeful choruses, bring a sense of majesty and celebration: the arrival of the King of kings. The chorale which ends Part Two contains, perhaps, the essence of the whole work:
“Wir singen dir in deinem Heer… We sing to Thee amidst Thy host: praise, honour and glory with all our might, that Thou, O long-desired guest, has now at last appeared.”
Finally, our friend, the music PR specialist, Jo Carpenter, informs us of a highly-interesting visit that she made to a new European concert hall – the 2,000-seat home of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra. Named the Queen Elisabeth Hall, the structure was the work of Manchester-based architects Simpson Haugh & Partners, who co-operated closely with Bureau Bouwtechniek (Antwerp) and Kirkegaard Associates (Chicago) to create what has been described as “a complex and innovative project.” Kirkegaard also provided world-leading expertise in acoustics design. Joost Maegerman, General Manager of the orchestra stated: “A brand new high-spec building designed to accommodate nearly 2,000 people in complete luxury, provide state-of-the art backstage facilities and offer performers outstanding acoustics — it’s every symphony orchestra’s dream, and for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, it’s come true.” Christmas, it seems, has come just in time in Antwerp.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review