Handel's 'Messiah', reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL
When Ebenezer Prout produced his edition of Handel's Messiah it incorporated some of the most up to date Handel scholarship at the time. Unfortunately, his publishers insisted that he include optional additional accompaniments to make the work more suitable for a symphony orchestra. These extra instruments were necessary because of the size gap -- as Messiah performances grew bigger it became increasingly difficult to provide adequate continuo. And Handel's orchestration became increasingly distant from late 19th century orchestration.
But even before the advent of modern Handel scholarship and period performance practice, it became apparent that the traditional large scale Messiah left something to be desired. Though Thomas Beecham is forever associated with his late recording of Messiah with all the bells and whistles, his earlier recorded efforts go a remarkable way towards a more modern view of Handel. In one he alternates between a large chorus and a chamber choir, depending on the needs of the music.
And Sir John Barbirolli wrote of an encounter with Kathleen Ferrier when she complained of how difficult it was to sustain 'He was despised' at the traditional slow speed with the heavy orchestration. Barbirolli realised the Ferrier had probably never known the work without the extra instruments and tried out 'He was despised' with Handel's orchestration, to ravishing results.
It is against this background that the post war editions of Messiah for symphony orchestras introduced the idea of concertante and ripieno groups. Handel did use this sort of split in his orchestras but the markings are by no means consistent. But using a small grouping for some passages means that larger scale performances can achieve the necessary delicacy.
Copyright © 12 December 2006
Robert Hugill, London UK