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Classical 101

Columbus Symphony Presents 'Messiah' (plus a guilty pleasure)

[ADAM, THIS HAS AUDIO] The Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the wonderful, all volunteer CSO Chorus perform Handel's "Sacred Oratorio" MESSIAH this Saturday November 20 at 8 pm and Sunday the 21st at 3 in the Ohio Theater. Ronald Jenkins conducts. Saturday night's performance is broadcast live on WOSU 89.7 FM. Okay, let's get right to it. Here's part of  the Hallelujah chorus, with the Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge, recorded in London in 1969 [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-messiah-hallelujah-40.mp3] Ask ten people to name their favorite recordings of Messiah and you may get fifteen different answers

  • Eugene Goosens's gargantuan orchestration, complete with harps, cymbals and saxophones conducted by Thomas Beecham.
  • Choir boys and strings with no vibrato conducted by Andre Parrot.
  • Leonard Bernstein's re- ordering of the score and the use of a (fine) counter-tenor, considered astonishing in 1956.
  • A mid 1960s recording conducted by Colin Davis that used the smaller forces Handel would have sanctioned, but with pulsing string and big voiced solo quartet.

And then there's Richard Bonynge.00000178-6a23-ddab-a97a-6a3b5c900000 The Australian born conductor's 1969 version has been either a guilty favorite or a party recording for over forty years. Without negating the ribald aspects of one of the vocal soloists, this is my guilty pleasure desert island choice,  for the energetic choral singing [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-messiah-and-he-shall-purify.mp3] Like many of Bonynge's recordings, the commercial raison d'etre for this was the presence of Mrs. Bonynge as the soprano soloist. Dame Joan Sutherland seldom sang Messiah in her great years. Who could afford her for two arias and a few ensembles? Surprise, Miss Sutherland/Mrs. Bonynge (not yet Dame Joan) was tolerated in this recording . "Miss Sutherland is not at her best in "Rejoice Greatly".  She sounds signs of insecurity on some of the quick runs" opines Gramophone magazine in 1970.  Phooey.  When (Dame) Joan sings "Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion/Shout! , O Daughter of Jerusalem! you'd better bloody well believe it [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-MESSIAH-BONYNGE-REJOICE-GREATLY.mp3] More controversial was the Canadian mezzo Huguette Tourangeau, long a colleague of Sutherland and Bonynge's, a lusciously beautiful woman with an astonishingly weird vocal technique. Sutherland was known to eschew consonants. Tourangeau is unaware consonants even exist. [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-messiah-thou-art-gone-up-on-high.mp3] God love her. There are appoggiaturas galore in this performance, leaning notes from below and above everywhere and barely two measures together are not decorated. To 2010 ears, these embellishments played on modern instruments and sung by operatic soloists are, well,  off the wall.  But fun. Who's going to tell Joan Sutherland to sing with straight tone?  I especially like the Finnish bass Tom Krause, for the beauty of his voice and his sense of purpose in The People That walked in Darkness [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-MESSIAH-BONYNGE-DARKNESS.mp3] But its the energetic choral singing the makes this set for me.  You want it quick and well articulated? Then you want this performance by the Ambrosian Singers [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-messiah-for-unto-us.mp3] Although born in Germany as Georg Friederich Handel, George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) died a British subject after forty years at the center of England's musical life.  Messiah was composed over six weeks in the summer of 1741. While Messiah is very much a story told through singing, it is no opera. The public's appetite for the great Italian operas from Handel's pen had been satisfied by 1741. Messiah is an oratorio, a work sung to a religious text not meant to be staged. The texts used were a masterful combination of scripture, largely from the psalms and the Old Testament from the English bible, put together by Charles Jennens.  A distinguished author, Jennens fancied himself a music critic, for while he liked Handel,  he sniffed that the music of Messiah good enough "but not so good as Handel ought to have done." Posterity disagreed with Jennens.  Messiah was first heard not in a British chapel or palace, but in the Music Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin, where Handel had traveled early in 1742 to present a season of his own works.  The first performance got off to a rocky start.  Dr. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, was Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and protested mightily against scripture being desecrated by song. Probably it was a bit of payola that brought this worthy around. The success of the first performance was respectable enough. The papers advised ladies to forego their hoop skirts and asked gentlemen to leave their swords at home, to better accommodate the overflow audiences.  Handel's contralto soloist, Susannah Cibber was known for a racy lifestyle.  So moving was her performance of "He as despised" that Dr. Swift cried,  "Woman, for this all thy sins be forgiven thee!" Although often performed at Christmas, Handel intended  Messiah for Lenten performances. The work is in three parts: the nativity, the passion and the resurrection. Hallelujah! ends "Part the Second" with its promise of eternal victory through salvation. Messiah found its most devoted audiences in London in the 1750s, when Handel  himself led performances during Lent to benefit his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital. King George II stood for the "Hallelujah" chorus, and if the king stands so stands everyone.  Whether gout, the call of nature, or the sublime music brought the king to his feet is one of history's unanswered questions. What can never be doubted is that Handel's Messiah holds its place the world's best loved choral work. Now, here again is the Hallelujah chorus, big and brassy with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. You don't have to sand up [audio:http://www.wosu.org/audio/classical/2010/111710-MESSIAH-BEECHAM-HALLELUJAH.mp3] Don't forget the CSO performances this week. I give a pre concert talk in the Ohio Theater one hour before every performance.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.