Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Classics, Christmas Day edition: A composite performance of the whole of Part I of Handel's "Messiah"


As we're going to hear Kiri Te Kanawa close out Part I of Messiah, we have her here repeating her 1981 Royal Wedding triumph with Handel's "Let the bright seraphim" from Samson with James Levine conducting in 1985.

by Ken

As I tried to convey in last night's special Christmas Eve edition of Sunday Classics, it was through a sudden connection to the opening vocal number, the tenor accompagnato "Comfort ye, my people" (which we previewed, along with the Opening Narration of Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ, Friday night), that I began to take Messiah personally. Today we're going to hear the whole of Part I, and by way of introduction I'm resurrecting something I wrote in the 2009 Sunday Classics Messiah post:
It's always pointed out, and rightly so, that Messiah is the oddball among Handel's oratorios. The others are unstaged dramatizations of highly dramatic Old Testament-based stories, which would probably have been staged if English censorship of the time didn't forbid stage representation of biblical material. Messiah not only isn't dramatic, it has no plot. It's just a collection of Bible snippets -- most uncharacteristically for Handel drawing on the New as well as the Old Testament. It has no "definitive" edition, with regard to exactly which numbers are included and which are assigned to which voice category, because Handel tinkered with both every time he performed the piece. This allows performers tremendous leeway in putting together a performing edition.

And of course the old-style performances with a massive chorus and orchestra have given way to more and more modest performing forces. That we have a better feel for how a Handelian phrase fits together is all to the good; otherwise there has been perhaps more loss than gain in the "authenticizing" of performances, which substitute book learning for musical understanding, which is especially unfortunate in the case of Messiah, which is one of the supreme musical tours through and tributes to the human spirit.

Only the first (and longest) of Messiah's three parts, which is all related to the birth of Christ, has a specific Christmas connection, but that's enough to make it inescapable Christmas fodder. Me, I listen to it all year round, and I'm not in the least religious. For me Messiah, for all its religious references, isn't particularly religious in content. When the soprano sings, "I know that my Redeemer liveth" (and we'll be hearing an especially intimate and personal performance), I understand by "Redeemer" something outside of our own selves that can give meaning -- and yes, even redemption -- to life.



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