10 September 1941 – 24 September 2014
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Reconstructing Messiah performances
August 2, 2007

That strain again — now where have we heard this before?

Getting a Handel on Messiah — Two new Messiah recordings aim to reconstruct Handel’s performances — an approach pioneered by Christopher Hogwood in his trailblazing 1980 account, says David Vickers, writing in Gramophone magazine for November 2006.

Messiah, intended by its libretto-compiler Charles Jennens and the composer as a timely celebration for Lent, has become inseparable from Christmas (though only a portion of the first of its three parts has relevance to the festive season). Several fine new recordings have been released just in time for this year’s Yuletide celebrations. Edward Higginbottom (director of the Choir of New College, Oxford) and John Butt (artistic co-director of the Dunedin Consort) have each opted to reconstruct one of Handel’s own performances, but this policy started in earnest with Christopher Hogwood’s trailblazing 1980 recording with his Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Hogwood admits that “Messiah had been over-recorded even in those days, so there was a sort of pressure from our recording company not to do the same version.” He decided to reconstruct the only one of Handel’s own versions for which there is a lot of documentary information about the constitution of the orchestra and choir, and surviving performance material. Hogwood points out that this “naturally led to the account books and surviving performing parts for the performances at the Foundling Hospital in 1754”.

Back in 1980, we had not yet been bullied into denying the idealism and excitement that period instruments bring to “early” music. Hogwood’s Messiah was revolutionary and revelatory, with its dynamic championing of period instruments, the precise clarity of choral contributions, and stylishly natural soloists. Hogwood remembers that “In those days the vast majority of listeners were used to hearing cut Messiahs, so just to hear every piece was a surprise for a lot of people.” Not only that, but the actual musical text Handel performed at the Foundling Hospital in 1754 included some substantial differences to earlier and more familiar arrangements: a blistering high soprano version of “But who may abide” was sung with tremendous energy and intensity by Emma Kirkby, and David Thomas theatrically swept all asunder in the curtailed version of “Why do the nations” that launches suddenly into the chorus “Let us break their bonds” via a fleeting accompanied recitative. There were also subtle issues about Handel’s 1754 performances to be resolved. Hogwood mentions that “the oddity is two horns — what did they play? We know they were there, but there is no independent part for them. We tried using them to double the trumpets an octave below. Whether that is right or wrong nobody is quite sure, but I don’t think anybody has ever complained since!” Another vital ingredient was a sense of theatrical pacing and flow that had seldom been captured before. Hogwood says: “We made sure there weren’t great gaps between movements. I do like continuity without too much space for you to open your handbag and find a cough sweet!”

Hogwood acknowledges that in those days the AAM “benefited very much from Decca being proactive and sympathetic about getting things going. It was produced by Peter Wadland, who was always very scrupulous. Everybody was happy that it hung together, but nobody had any idea that the public would like it.” But the recording sessions were not as idyllic as the fantastic recording might have led us to believe: “During the sessions we had a big row with the Musicians’ Union, and we were blacked off by the union. I never belonged to the union anyway, so we stood our ground. But for a long time I was not allowed to perform with my own orchestra, so we made TV recordings with a locked door in case the shop stewards came in.”

Thankfully, the AAM has survived. During the intervening years three participants in Hogwood’s recordings of Messiah (a later performance was filmed with the Choir of Westminster Abbey) have produced their own impressive recordings of the work: William Christie (Harmonia Mundi 10/94), Roy Goodman (leading his Brandenburg Consort for Stephen Cleobury; Argo, 12/94) and Harry Christophers (8/87R). The rich legacy of the AAM’s Messiah has been reinventing itself ever since. Now, after 26 years, the orchestra has recorded the oratorio again in very different circumstances.

The AAM 2006 upgrade is directed by Edward Higginbottom, who celebrates his 30th anniversary at the helm of his New College Choir. He observes that “the way the record industry has gone in the last 10 years, the opportunity to do iconic works has receded. So to celebrate my 30 years here I decided to bankroll a Messiah which I’ve then sold to Naxos.” Higginbottom pays tribute to the AAM: “It is the oldest of our early music orchestras, and that counts for something: it says that its roots are deep, it comes with all that Christopher Hogwood has given to it, and with tremendous experience of many repertoires.”

As with Hogwood in 1980, Higginbottom wanted his Messiah to be different. “We selected the 1751 version, when Handel decided he would use boys from the Chapel Royal for the solos as well as in the chorus. Handel also used tenor and bass soloists who had originally trained in the same background. You can see how it knits in with how we wanted it to celebrate a choral foundation. It is intriguing for me to take a contemporary organisation — my own choir and some former members — and contextualise it in a historical performance that Handel gave.”

Whereas Hogwood wanted to reconstruct Handel as closely as possible and promote period instruments, Higginbottom’s work with the AAM has a new agenda: “My motive was first and foremost to showcase New College Choir. It is a testament to my deep conviction that boys’ choir activity in the UK is a very special thing. I am not sure people know that. It is one of those things that if we don’t celebrate it then in 10 years’ time it might not be here. There are huge problems in running a boys’ choir anywhere in Europe these days, and it was very much in my mind that this would signal that these are very precious commodities. We should look after them; we should cherish them.”

In 1980 Decca underwrote Hogwood’s technical and artistic costs, but times have changed and now artists must find the money themselves. A novel element of the New College Messiah project is that a clever chorister parent came up with the idea of auctioning each movement to sponsors in order to raise the funds to make the recording.

By an amazing coincidence, the Dunedin Consort simultaneously hit upon a similar strategy to fund their magnificent new recording for Linn Records. John Butt, a renowned Bach scholar and harpsichordist, observes that the idea to use subscriptions “has a historical ring to it. The concept was very much around in Handel’s time, so we did our subscription with all the old-fashioned lettering and all the old turns of phrase, as if we were selling it back in the 18th century!”

Butt played continuo on the innovative Harmonia Mundi USA recording of Messiah under Nicholas McGegan (10/91), yet another alumnus of Hogwood’s early-1980s AAM. This project included most of the variants from Handel’s different versions, and Butt fondly remembers that “it gave me an idea of some of the possibilities. I got hooked! Part of my interest in historical performance is trying to recover something of the surprise of music. I wonder what must it have sounded like for the very first time in Dublin. Handel was fresh to the piece and there are some big differences in original movements that we seldom hear now.” The Dunedin Consort “have done several things that bring out the newness, excitement and spontaneity of that event”. Butt has deliberately not listened to other recordings of Messiah while working on his project; but he says that Hogwood’s classic AAM performance “was a great inspiration to me when it came out. When you listen back to the AAM’s recordings from that period they are surprisingly subtle and flexible; radical in a quiet way”.

The Dunedin Consort bear Hogwood’s torch when it comes to researching documentary evidence, reconstructing the size and constitution of Handel’s performing forces and using the scientific approach to reinforce spectacular and provocative artistic results. Those accustomed to the grand choral society tradition or even chamber choirs of about 30 singers will be shocked to learn that Handel’s first Messiah was probably sung by only about a dozen voices, including seven soloists whom Handel expected to sing in all the choruses. The Dunedin Consort bravely take the plunge to perform Messiah in exactly this way. “You can do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do, and a consort of 12 singers cannot possibly sing Messiah choruses on autopilot. They really have to take a specific stance on the whole concept of affect, which so many people talk about in Baroque music without necessarily being able to realise it. The concept of rhetoric was so much in the education of Handel: a sense of how the text really is part of the music. It’s not just stuck on.” However, Butt is also aware that “it is so easy to get things too proscribed. So I tried to make people mark as little as possible in their copies, so that they remembered certain key principles and could then play with them. Directing from the harpsichord meant I didn’t have to literally conduct all the time, and a certain amount of non-direction forces musicians to concentrate and work together with a greater sense of focus and visual interaction”. The Dunedin Consort’s sensitivity to text and their desire to make the music fresh in the most intelligent manner is arguably the firmest way in which this harks back to Hogwood’s AAM 26 years ago.

Reproduced by kind permission of Gramophone Magazine