Handel, Messiah, arr. E. Goossens, J. Vyvyan, M. Sinclair, J. Vickers, G. Tozzi, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, T. Beecham
The Romanticization of Handel's Messiah, expanding the performing forces to ever-larger choruses and orchestras, reached its apogee in this infamous adaptation, recorded by Thomas Beecham in 1959, fifty years ago this year. In a sense, this augmentation of Messiah began not long after Handel's death: super-chorus oratorio performances in London inspired Haydn to write for such forces in his late oratorios, thinking it was true to Handel's intentions. As noted recently by Matthew Guerrieri, George Bernard Shaw put his finger on the overblown veneration for Messiah: calling Handel “a sacred institution,” Shaw wrote of the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English Protestants.”
In fact, many performances of Messiah these days try to strike an uncomfortable balance with what the HIP movement taught us: harpsichord or portative organ with a small orchestra and large chorus in a vast concert hall, for example. For a venue like the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, where the acoustic is challenging enough, the Goossens arrangement with a vast number of singers from the Washington Chorus made perfect sense. Even so, guest conductor Rossen Milanov seemed to take a cue from some of our favorite HIP recordings with very fleet tempi, where Beecham tended to luxuriate. With a few judicious cuts here and there, it kept the performance to a reasonable length. Milanov has an elegant and precise, almost militaristic gesture, and the chorus especially stayed with him admirably.
The soloists were not quite as obedient, especially tenor Jason Collins, who more than once seemed to lose track of the beat on long notes and in melismatic passages. He did have a nice heroic ping to his voice in the first half but degraded into some shouted high notes in the second. Contralto Meredith Arwady had a dark, viscous, almost masculine tone in her chest voice, and soprano Elza van den Heever was jarringly opposite, a flutey tone turning quite nasal at times. She sang well, although one wished that some of the over-the-top fireworks in the cadenza of Rejoice greatly could have made it into a rather dull I Know that My Redeemer Liveth (a slow aria that cries out for ornamentation and almost never receives it). The best solo singing came from bass Eric Owens, the rumble of his voice often matched by Goossens's outrageous use of bass drum rolls under the orchestral texture, as the bass sings words like "shake" or "refiner's fire."
Joe Banno, The National Symphony Orchestra's grand take on Handel's 'Messiah' (Washington Post, December 19)
The NSO's first concerts of the year (January 7 to 9) will likely be one of the best programs of the season. Ultra-talented violinist Nikolaj Znaider will play the Elgar violin concerto, on the same Guarnerius violin used by Fritz Kreisler to premiere the work one hundred years ago. Leonard Slatkin, former music director of the NSO, is still officially scheduled to conduct this concert, although complications from the heart attack he suffered while conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic last month have delayed some of his plans to return to the podium.