Saturday, December 7, 2019

If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?

Or, The First Messiah Performance of the Season

Whilst looking for entertainment I happened upon this performance of dear Mr. Handel's Messiah, and I was perfectly charmed. The information given by the individual who posted this to YouTube is infuriatingly useless, but a commenter noted that the ensemble is Collegium 1704 in Prague, and the conductor is Vaclav Lucs. A quick screen shot at the end revealed the soloists' names.  I found the tempi spritely and quite appropriate, quite a contrast to many of the stodgy performances I've witnessed and been a part of. I was impressed with the coloratura ability of each section in those difficult choruses we all know. It was of course obvious that these people are not native English speakers, but after a while I didn't care. At least there was consistency in their mispronunciations!

Let me say this. I have been a choral singer all of my life, and I have always loved Messiah. The score I used in my freshman year of college to perform Messiah is still one of my most treasured possessions.  I miss with all my heart the days when I was capable of singing this music. There has never been a time when I was cynical about Messiah. (OK, maybe sometimes about the Hallelujah chorus, but that's understandable.) I used to sing "Comfort Ye/Ev'ry Valley" at every opportunity. Every few years the second Sunday of Advent, when that text is appropriate, falls on my birthday, and that delights me especially. (For the record, that happens this year, but I'm certainly not attempting to sing it this year.)

There are different schools of thought about performance practice. Some people are accustomed to symphonic presentations of this great work, while others will only accept "authentic early music practice", whatever that is. It is my opinion that both positions are valid, and I enjoy them both. I don't need to feel "earlier than thou" to enjoy a Baroque masterpiece, but I do appreciate some nuances that suggest the performers are not reading exactly as printed in the G. Schirmer edition. On the other hand, I still find it surprising to have the alto soloist sing "For he is like a refiner's fire". I want the tenor to sing all four of "Thy rebuke/Behold and see/He was not cut off/But thou didst not leave", but that's probably because I used to enjoy doing them as a set.

If you can read the screen shot above, you can get the soloists' names. I liked them all. Yes, dear readers, I liked all the soloists. All of them had the appropriate tone, agility, and artistry for their roles. Because of the quick tempi, none of that tension-causing artificial darkness we so often hear was present. It's simply not possible to sing this music this well with that kind of tension. At the same time, they didn't have that bland, white sound we sometimes hear from "early music" artists, with the possible exception of a few sustained tones sung straight, with no vibrato. 

But. Maybe it's a sign that I'm aging, but I was more focused on the choruses than the arias. I loved them. For that I credit Mr. Lucs, the conductor. Overall I quite approve of this performance, if that matters, and I recommend giving it a listen when you get a chance.

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