Friday, December 11, 2009

The Beecham Messiah

(Worthy is the Lamb)

The Beecham Messiah is playing right now on the Baltimore Classical station, the wonderful WBJC 91.5. Every time I hear this recording, I can't escape the feeling that Sir Thomas got away with something.

It's very difficult to imagine now, but the glut of Messiahs that occur every Christmas season is nothing compared to the way it used to be. A hundred years ago, a sing-along Messiah in an Anglican cathedral with 3,000 singers in the pews was a common occurrence. England was known to the Germans as 'Das Land Ohne Musik' (the land without music), but they loved their oratorios. Whether Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn or Elgar, the Victorians and Edwardians reserved a special enthusiasm for large-scale choral works that no other civilization has ever come close to matching.

(For Unto Us A Child Is Born)

But the Beecham Messiah is something still weirder. For this recording, Beecham got composer/conductor Sir Eugene Goossens to reorchestrate the piece for a 130 piece Mahlerian orchestra and the chorus must have easily numbered 400-strong. But what comes down to us more clearly is the ebullience with which all the players obviously threw themselves into this venture. It comes down to us almost like a statement of defiance against a prevailing fashionm, as though they knew that they would never participate in an event quite like this one ever again. Musicological scholarship was already making performances like this one entirely verboten. Gone forever would be the age when Baroque masterpieces would be rearranged for huge orchestras. Raymond Leppard was already making his editions of Baroque operas, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt were already making their first forays into authentic performance practice, and soon afterward David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood would found the Early Music Consort. The writing was on the wall, and soon the idea that Bach and Handel should be performed like later composers would disappear altogether from the concert hall.

(Thou shalt break them! and the Hallelujah Chorus - the latter must be heard to be believed. That accelerando at the end....sheesh...)

Let there be no doubt, it was a great development. Anybody who is afraid of what authentic performance practice does to music is probably afraid of music too. Rather than constrict the ways in which pieces can be performed (as so many thought it would), it diversified music-making to a level unseen since before the age of recording. But in every historical metamorphosis, something valuable always gets lost to us. And you have to wonder about just how awesome it would be to sing in those 'Big Band Messiahs' in which all of your friends knew the music and we could all show up (probably after a few glasses of sherry) to belt out the same Messiah songs that not only we grew up singing, but that our parents and grandparents did too.

(Ev'ry Valley as sung by the magnificent Jon Vickers with a 130 piece orchestra at his back. Only a great heldentenor could do it.)

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