Getting a Handle on Handel

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There’s no escaping it this time of year (even though it was probably written for Easter), but why would you want to? From do-it-yourself to professional performances, Messiah is pretty much required Christmas music and hearing it, even for the umpteenth time, can still be a delightful or even profoundly spiritual experience.

But what about listening at home? A few years ago I decided I would finally make a definitive selection  of which recording I would own, to enjoy at home, and sing along to (at the top of my lungs, yes, because it’s my house and I can, so there!)

It was kind of an overwhelming assignment – how to choose? There are hundreds of recordings of this masterwork.

Most of them seem to fall into one of two camps: the big, loud, huge nineteenth century versions, with large orchestras and choruses, and often, to my dismay, draggy tempos, or the nimble, smaller, lighter, often original-instrument ensembles, with quicker tempos and a less ponderous, more joyful or mysterious, feel to them.

The three features of any recording that were most important to me in choosing the one I’d listen to most often were tempos, the quality of the singers and the size and nature of the orchestra.

Which ran me straight into the mix-n-match problem.

What if there were stupendous soloists, singers I’d always want to hear, coupled with a conductor whose tempos I didn’t like or an orchestra that sounded too big? Or what if the chorus was spectacular but the soloists unknown or over-the-hill?

I quickly learned that I would never find the perfect recording  – I’d be wailing along with one of them and then all of a sudden the tempo would go south, or the soloist would run off the rails. So compromise was inevitable, and I ended up choosing two favorite recordings that come closest to what my ears need Messiah to be, and here they are:

This falls into the Big Singers and modern orchestra category, but the tempos are great and Sam Ramey – well, he’s Sam Ramey.  When he sings “I will shake…” he’ll have you trembling in your boots. Kathleen Battle is her usual crystal-toned self, nimble and birdlike and often a little too flashy, but that just gives you something to strive for in the sing-along department. Plenty of  “hey let’s see of they can do that one in one breath” moments, and usually they do. I only have this one as a digital recording so I don’t have what used to be called “liner notes,” that now usually come as booklets with the CD, but listening to this one is kind of self-explanatory. It’s just plain great.

Here’s my other favorite:

This falls into the nimble, original instruments category with a wonderful lightness, or solemnity and mystery, where appropriate. I do have this as a CD and the accompanying booklet is terrific – a very enjoyable and unpretentious music history lesson in a jewel case. The best thing about this recording to me is the wonderful surprise of hearing the “Rejoice” done in a dancy 12/8 version.

I’ve listened to a lot of other recordings and performances of Messiah, and I have a few rules:

  1. No “highlights” or “greatest hits.” Handel nearly killed himself in a frenzy of composition writing the entire thing in about three weeks, and although he changed it and reworked it a lot for different solo voices and different performances, I think it was always intended to be heard as a whole. So yes, I am requiring you to listen to the whole thing. You won’t regret it.
  2. If  you are attending a live performance, yes, you have to stand up during “Hallelujah.” I stand up at home anyway, howling along with it, often messing up my part in a fit of overconfidence – “I’ve sung this thing so many times, I know it backwards and forw…oops, missed that run there…better get out the score…where’s that score?…”
  3. Take the “one breath” challenge during “Thus Sayeth the Lord” and “Rejoice” – yes, I’m a soprano but I sing along with the other parts, including the bass, because it’s my house and I can, so there.

Messiah is the kickoff of the holiday music season for me, and once I’ve had a few good sing-throughs, I move on to the carols and the CDs that Mike and I picked up on a lark each year from the bargain bin. We listened to a lot of drek, but also discovered several unexpected gems which I’ll share in my next post and over on my Books and Music page.

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