A taste of 'Messiahs' great and small

Handel's "Messiah" is America's best-loved chorale work for so many reasons … First of all, the text is in English, second, it's tied to the Christmas season, when music fills the air, and third, Handel is one of the finest composers for the voice who ever lived. There are dozens of recordings of "Messiah" out there, and some differ in the extreme.

So what better way to kick off this audio blog, where you get to listen to the sample tracks and post your opinions, than with the one piece of classical music everyone knows?

Handel wrote "Messiah" in a two-week blaze of composition in 1741, and he revised it many times before his death in 1759. Then, along came a next-generation composer named Mozart who lovingly re-orchestrated "Messiah," adding clarinets and trombones and extensively rescoring the oratorio. Who are we to argue with Mozart? That version was performed most often until the early music movement came along in the 1980s and restored Baroque music to its glory.

The many rescoring efforts for "Messiah" could be extreme. Just sample the 1959 extravaganza by British conductor Thomas Beecham, who added harps, triangles, cymbals and massive orchestral weight. It fit the British love of choral giganticism, and it certainly adds sonic heft to the choruses, but … well, you be the judge.

A counterpoint to Beecham's Cinemascope spectacular is Christopher Hogwood's 1991 recording using the 1754 Handel version, which, like the original employs trebles – boys – instead of sopranos in the choruses, to create a celestial, silvery sound. The tempos are lively, and the lighter orchestration simply gleams. More importantly, the recitatives – the semi-sung passages of text – have a real sense urgency – you feel like they are telling you an important message.

(Many of us here had the pleasure of seeing Hogwood lead a force of just 16 voices in a "Messiah" at Connecticut College about 20 years ago.)

So this playlist includes some comparisons of three versions:

  • "For unto us a child is born," is offered first in Beecham's huge setting with a zillion voices and added percussion, then Hogwood's bright and gleaming Handel version, with a choir of angels … no, they're trebles. (This is my favorite section of "The Messiah," so thrilling at "Wonderful, Counselor …")
  • "All we like sheep …" is here first in the Mozart version, led by Charles Mackerras. It opens with pulsing horns that chug along and is full of horn figures to ornament it. In the Handel orchestration by Hogwood that comes next, the voices take the forefront (no need to tart this up).
  • "There were shepherds abiding …" The big Beecham version is spread across four, short recording tracks and is set in a single track for the Hogwood version. In the Beecham, we get cymbals to start "Glory to God" and booming percussion … for some reason. In Hogwood's, the recitative by soprano Judith Nelson (who has performed here in New London) has a fervor that leads to "Glory to God" far better than any hey-wake-up cymbal crash.
  • The "Hallelujah" chorus, in Beecham's version sounds like a marching band at a Big Ten football game, feeling rushed after the pokey tempos he uses elsewhere. Hogwood's is quick, not hasty, the vocal counterpoint is accented, and the trumpets sing out above it all like heraldry, instead of being buried in a wall of sound.

So, I guess I cast my vote. There are countless fine "Messiahs" in the catalog. Which is your favorite?

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