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The King's College M-Word

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Handel, Messiah, A. Tynan, A. Coote, A. Clayton, M. Rose, Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of King's College, Cambridge, S. Cleobury

(released on November 3, 2009)
EMI Classics 50999 2 68156 9 5
Handel premiered his oratorio Messiah in Dublin on April 13, 1742. While the chance to hear the massive Goossens orchestration last weekend, with the National Symphony Orchestra, was certainly welcome, this new DVD takes the listener much closer to what Handel created. There is no shortage of DVD versions of Messiah shot in beautiful locales, including a previous one by Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and the high price tag does not help make a case for this one. Cleobury's earlier recording was with the Brandenburg Consort, and here he has an even finer instrumental portion, provided by the Academy of Ancient Music on original instruments. The band is limited to what Handel had at the premiere, a small consort of strings, and historical replicas of two oboes, bassoon, timpani, and two trumpets (twenty-some players in all). In Dublin, Handel led the performance from the harpsichord, which is used here as at the premiere in conjunction with a chamber organ. As he often did at his concerts, Handel interpolated movements from his organ concertos at the intermissions, featuring himself as soloist, a practice that is not reproduced here.

Messiah was not premiered in a church but in a public auditorium, the New-Musick Hall in Dublin's Fishamble Street (often named Neale's Hall after the music publisher William Neale), a building that was later converted into a theater and has long since been demolished. The hall is thought to have held about 600 people, but one reviewer of the first performance said that as many as 700 had squeezed into the space. Just for comparison the Kennedy Center Concert Hall holds about 2,500, but the legendary chapel at King's College holds just over 600 (filled as it was for the performances captured here, this past April) and is long and narrow like the Dublin venue was. Needless to say, the building's fanned web vault, an impossibly intricate version of late Gothic architectural design, comes in for many beauty shots.

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Thomas Forrest Kelly, Five Nights: Five Musical Premieres
To learn more about the circumstances of the first performances of Messiah, we highly recommend a book by Harvard professor Thomas Kelly, which examines all of the primary evidence about the work's early history, to separate fact from fiction: Prof. Kelly gives the same treatment to four other supremely important musical masterpieces, including Monteverdi's Orfeo, Beethoven's ninth symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Although Messiah is generally thought of as a sacred work now, at the time it represented a radical secularization of the life of Christ, intended not for a church but for a public theater (sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Dublin), that was opposed by some churchmen and pious Christians. Jonathan Swift, then Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, almost scuttled the premiere by initially forbidding choristers from the cathedral to take part in the performance, because of the perceived crossing of sacred-secular lines.

Handel's choir consisted of the gentlemen and choirboys of Saint Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, making the King's College Choir an excellent approximation of their sound. Handel did have women as soloists at the Dublin premiere (he later revised some of the solos for the castrato Guadagnini): an Italian singer known only as Signora Avolio for the soprano pieces and the contralto Susanna Maria Cibber for some of the alto solos (she actually shared the solos with two gentlemen of the choir). Mrs. Cibber was an actress known more for her dramatic talent (her fame was widespread and she was allowed the rare honor of burial in Westminster Abbey) than as a singer and had sung the role of Polly in The Beggar's Opera in London. Because she had no musical training, Handel had to teach her parts to her by rote, and to accommodate her light voice -- "a mere thread," according to Charles Burney -- Handel had to transpose her arias down to suit her limited range. The male solos were divided among some of the gentlemen of the choir; violinist Matthew Dubourg led the orchestra and conducted -- he was known for an excessive love of ornamentation, as described by Burney.

It may surprise some listeners of Messiah to know that Handel did not compose the piece originally for specific voices, and he apparently scaled down the virtuosic demands of his vocal writing, not knowing what kind of singers he would have at his disposal. In fact, John Hawkins, another authority on music in the 18th century, wrote somewhat disparagingly of the vocal writing:
Instead of airs that required the delicacy of Cuzzoni, or the volubility of Faustina to execute, he hoped to please by songs, the beauties whereof were within the comprehension of less fastidious hearers than in general frequent the opera, namely, such as were adapted to a tenor voice, from the natural firmness and inflexibility whereof little more is ever expected than an articulate utterance of the words, and a just expression of the melody.
In fact, the famous soprano solo Rejoice greatly was originally composed to be about twice as long as it was later revised. This may explain why the piece works better with talented singers who may not have the largest voices, such as are featured here. Again, this new DVD is not a necessary purchase, but for someone looking for a Messiah on DVD, in a beautiful setting and fairly close to what Handel envisioned, this is a good choice.

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