Friday, December 24, 2010

Sunday Classics, Christmas Eve edition: "Comfort ye"


The Mormon Tabernacle Choir announces the joyful news, "For unto us a child is born," from Part I of Messiah.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
[Isaiah 9:6]
[No. 12] Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded 1958-59

by Ken

I was startled myself to discover that our first Handel-Berlioz Messiah-L'Enfance du Christ Christmas was all the way back in December 2006! It didn't occur to me to do it again in 2007, but in 2008 we had a brief Christmas Eve Messiah post and a Christmas Day L'Enfance du Christ post; then last year it was reversed -- L'Enfance du Christ for Christmas Eve and Messiah for Christmas Day. In addition, in the course of our Maureen Forrester remembrance this past July we heard the great contralto sing most of "He was despis├Ęd" from Messiah.

Once again I thought we'd go straight to the heart of the matter and start with the chorus "For unto us a child is born," and once again, note the way Handel emphasizes, in the roster of names the newborn child will have, "Prince of Peace."

Mostly we're going to concentrate this year on the big bass excerpts from Messiah. We're doubling up with two fine basses, and we're going to have a lot of lovely singing, but mixed in is one truly breathtaking performance.

For now, though, we're going to start, resume, with the very beginning, almost -- we're skipping the Overture to go straight to the first musical numbers, the tenor recitative "Comfort ye, my people" and aria "Every valley shall be exalted." Note that the numbers included in brackets for all our Messiah selections are from the Eulenburg score edited by Brian Priestman. I've included them simply to give you an idea how the selections fit together, which we're really not going into today.

I've mentioned before that the little "Comfort ye" is one of my most deeply loved pieces of music, and I've already told the story of listening, on my friend Richard's 78-rpm copy, to the opening numbers of Sir Malcolm Sargent's first recording of Messiah and being simply overwhelmed by tenor James Johnston's seemingly singing directly to me about my warfare being accomplished and my iniquity pardoned. It was the beginning of my understanding that in setting this curious assortment of biblical texts, Handel wasn't trying to strike religious poses -- he found music that made the ideas embodied in the verses human and deeply personal.

Now this isn't James Johnston we're going to hear sing "Comfort ye" and "Every valley," but I've picked (I think) a pretty special recording, by a very familiar -- and distinctive-voiced -- performer who should be readily recognizable, but perhaps may not be. Just for fun, I'm not going to identify him till the click-through.

HANDEL: Messiah

Part I, Recitative and aria (tenor), "Comfort ye, my people" . . . "Every valley shall be exalted" [Nos. 1-2]
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
[Isaiah 40:1-3]
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
[Isaiah 40:4]



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