'If you only listen to one Messiah this Christmas, Stephen Layton and Polyphony's live recording should be it … Layton's interpretation has matured into something of infinite variety, clear insight and spiritual substance' (Classic FM Magazine)
'The music-making here has … the lightness, texutures and vocabulary of period style, but there is also the spritual grandeur … of the great Northern choral society tradition …The soloists are ideal. Julia Doyle is a charismatic Angel/narrator in the pastoral scene, and her embellished recapitulation of 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' is spine-tingling. Andrew Foster-Williams' singing is marvellous … The well-rounded tone and technical precision of Iestyn Davies's singing is easy to enjoy, but it is equally significant that his ornamentation in 'But who may abide' is masterful for its stylish vocabulary and expressive wisdom' (Gramophone)
'The new release has both a fine sense of style and is full of refreshing insights … The choir … sings with an effortless control and well-modulated fluency that takes wing … The acapella introduction of the final Amen is a masterstroke … Polyphony's new Messiah gives the daughters of Zion cause to 'Rejoice Greatly'' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Choral lightness and Layton's airy tempos convey the general feeling of good news … The quality of Julia Doyle's voice, shining, is fine, and 'Rejoice Greatly' finds her full of exultant expectancy at the thought of the Saviour's coming. The orchestra accompanies her with a springing step … A worthy addition to the discography' (International Record Review)
'Stephen Layton and his choir Polyphony are formidable performers' (Mail on Sunday)
'Polyphony's cultured, humane performances of Handel's masterpiece have long been a pre-Christmas fixture at St John's Smith Square and this set, recorded ther in December last year, testifies to the blend of brilliance and warmth that the choir and the versatile Britten Sinfonia bring to the music. Four excellent soloists enhance the stirring, poignant impact' (The Daily Telegraph)
'Layton understands the dramatic character of Handel's realization of the Christian story, but it's really the musical realizations here that are so compelling--and refreshingly unidiosyncratic--that you easily can hold this Messiah as your standard reference… This is the most satisfying quartet of Messiah soloists to appear in a very long time… it will instead encourage repeated listening by virtue of its trueness to Handel's music and its uncompromisingly fine performances' (ClassicsToday.com, USA)
'Polyphony are excellent … and Layton's direction is vivid and masterly' (The Sunday Times)
'Layton’s direction of the oratorio is wholly convincing … He often sets brisk tempi but the speeds always make sense and his performers are able to cope well and to articulate the music with pleasing clarity. However, this is not a hasty or brusque Messiah. The reflective numbers are as well done as are the joyful or the dramatic ones. Layton clearly loves the work and that shows through in his direction of it. It almost goes without saying that Hyperion’s production values are excellent. The sound is clear and pleasing. The booklet notes are good and the full libretto is provided, albeit in quite small type. This is a fine Messiah, which I have enjoyed greatly and to which I know I’ll return often in the future. It’s a significant contribution to the Handel anniversary celebrations' (MusicWeb.com)
'This performance enjoys vitality and sensitivity in equal measure; indeed it is a finely-judged intimate yet outgoing account, tempos unerringly judged. Polyphony’s youthful voices are a joy throughout, and the soloists avoid heaviness of expression without undoing the significant sentiments expressed (Julia Doyle’s coloratura is impressive, and Iestyn Davies’s renown seems fully justified). The famous arias and choruses are not weighed-down with pre-conception, Stephen Layton saving the grandest utterance for ‘Worthy is the Lamb … Amen’ as a truly fulfilling conclusion' (Hi-Fi Critic)
Part 1 No 1: Symphony [3'23]
Part 3 No 10, Chorus: Amen [4'15]
‘No-one, but no-one performs Messiah better every year than the choir Polyphony under the conductor Stephen Layton’ (Evening Standard)
Polyphony and Stephen Layton’s live Messiah at St John’s Smith Square has become one of the highlights of the musical season. The joyful sincerity and urgent brilliance of the performers has brought the familiar story to life again and again. Now this wonderful experience is available on disc, recorded in 2008 for a new release that will surely prove a strong competitor in a necessarily crowded market. Polyphony is joined by the Britten Sinfonia and a quartet of magnificent young soloists – all variously acclaimed as the premier Handel singers of the new generation.
Other recommended albums
In recent years the view of Handel as the composer of a few well-loved choral and instrumental works has given way to a much wider appreciation of his achievements, especially in the forms of opera and dramatic oratorio. Almost the whole of his output has been recorded, and frequent performances of many of the large-scale works on stage and in the concert hall have enabled audiences to become aware of the astonishing diversity to be found among them. Several of the operas (including Agrippina, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Ariodante and Alcina) now take their place in the regular operatic repertory, where they have been occasionally joined by productions of some of the musical dramas originally written for concert presentation, such as Semele, Theodora and Jephtha. Yet this new view of Handel’s work has not significantly changed the special place accorded to Messiah. And the concept of ‘historically informed’ performance, with use of period instruments, has not inhibited more traditional styles of presentation with large choirs: instead, it has added greater variety to the many forms of performance that are now to be heard.
It would be hard to claim that any of the operas and oratorios already mentioned is less of a masterpiece than Messiah, but none quite inspires equal affection. Among Handel’s oratorios, Messiah is unique in its combination of a text compiled from the Bible and a specifically Christian theme (though the stories of the Old Testament oratorios are of course embedded in Christian theology). His other Christian oratorios—the flamboyant and highly operatic La resurrezione, and the intense and tragic Theodora, products respectively of Handel’s youth and old age—could hardly be more different in their effect. Messiah gains its eminence from a dual ancestry in an old and deep-rooted form—the English anthem—and the newly invented concept of the English oratorio, first conceived as a ‘sacred drama’ set to music, but which in Handel’s hands proved to have much broader possibilities.
Handel’s first English oratorio, Esther, was written in 1718 while he was working at Cannons, the palatial mansion of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos. It was something of an experiment, and remained little known until a series of performances in London in 1732 brought it to public attention. The challenge of an unauthorized performance led Handel to create a new and much expanded version of the work, which he produced without stage action at the King’s Theatre in May 1732, in the middle of one of his regular seasons of Italian opera. The work is a drama based on a biblical play by Racine, but already has elements of the anthem within it, since the choruses of the original 1718 version were based on Racine’s choral imitations of the Psalms, and in 1732 Handel added two of his Coronation anthems of 1727 into the mix. With the oratorios Deborah (1733), Athalia (produced in Oxford in 1733 and in London in 1735), and particularly Saul (1739) Handel placed greater stress on the dramatic element, but meanwhile tried other types of choral works including the Italian serenata Parnasso in festa (1734) and the English ode Alexander’s Feast (1736).
During this period a circle of friends and supporters associated with the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury and the philosopher James Harris were a significant influence. They were keen to encourage Handel in the setting of great English texts, sublime in themselves, but which his music could, in their view, raise to even greater magnificence. Among this circle was Charles Jennens (1700–1773), wealthy heir to estates in Leicestershire and elsewhere, well versed in classical and religious literature, and a keen amateur musician. In 1738 he provided the libretto for Saul, and in the same year probably helped to compile the libretto of Part 2 of Israel in Egypt, Handel’s first oratorio on Biblical texts. The use of Scripture for this oratorio was prompted by Handel’s desire to find a new context for his anthem The ways of Zion do mourn, written for the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737, but which he obviously felt should have greater exposure beyond its single performance on that occasion. The text of the anthem was, as usual, a compilation from Scripture, and so Handel’s decision to make the anthem the first part of a new oratorio about the release of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt effectively determined the choice of Scriptural texts for the rest of the oratorio. In the event the dominance of the choruses in Israel in Egypt seems initially to have made it unpopular with the public, but it inspired Jennens to think of a new way of using Biblical texts as the basis of an oratorio. The result was Messiah.
Letters in the archives of the Earls of Malmesbury (the descendants of James Harris) reveal that Jennens had complied the libretto of Messiah by the end of 1739, but had put it aside because Handel was ‘desirous to please the town with something of a gayer turn’. The ‘gayer’ work was L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, on a libretto extracted by Harris from Milton’s poems, revised and expanded by Jennens on Handel’s instructions; it was first performed in February 1740. Consideration of Messiah was further delayed by Handel’s attempt at another season of Italian opera in 1740–41, but this proved unsuccessful and Handel never returned to opera again. An invitation to perform a series of concerts in Dublin the following winter finally gave Handel the impetus to set Jennens’s new libretto. Working at his usual breakneck speed, he composed the oratorio between 22 August and 14 September 1741, and immediately went on to draft Samson before leaving for Ireland early in November. It is clear that Handel already recognized the unusual nature of the oratorio, because he did not include it in the two series of subscription concerts series that he presented in Dublin’s new Music Hall in Fishamble Street between 23 December 1741 and 7 April 1742. Instead he reserved its first performance for the benefit of three charities on 13 April 1742, the ladies being asked to attend ‘without Hoops’, thereby ‘making Room for more Company’. It was ecstatically received, to judge from the press reports, and among the singers it was the contralto Susannah Cibber who made the most impression, especially in the aria ‘He was despised’.
Handel had to proceed with more caution when he gave the first London performance, at Covent Garden Theatre on 23 March 1743, as there was controversy over its use of Biblical texts and the supposed unsuitability of theatrical singers for ‘a religious Performance in a Playhouse’. However, as Handel established the practice of giving an annual season of oratorio performances at Covent Garden in Lent, objections to Messiah died down. He revived it in 1745 and 1749, reserving it for the end of each season, nearest to Easter, the place Jennens had originally envisaged for it. In 1750 Handel followed further revivals at Covent Garden with performances in the newly built chapel of the Foundling Hospital, the charity established by Captain Thomas Coram to save abandoned infants. The performances benefited the charity, of which Handel became a governor. (Now called Coram Family, it continues its work by providing support for deprived children.) These events proved to be highly popular, and the subsequent annual revivals at Covent Garden and at the hospital began the tradition of regular performance of Messiah as both a musical and a social ritual.
The effectiveness of Messiah owes much to Jennens’s libretto, which is subtle in its use of Scriptural texts. Jennens had a specific instructive purpose, to justify, as his title implies, the identification of the ‘Anointed One’ promised in Old Testament prophecy (‘Messiah’ in Hebrew, ‘Christos’ in Greek) with Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the gospels, Son of God and Redeemer of mankind. Thus Jesus’s mission on earth, his resurrection and his ascension to heaven are mapped out in Parts 1 and 2 of the oratorio not by direct narration (except for the nativity section), but largely through the Old Testament prophecies cited by New Testament writers as foretelling the events of the story. Part 3, inspired by the Anglican burial service and incorporating famous passages from the letters of St Paul, makes explicit the promise of a second coming of Messiah and the resurrection of the dead to eternal life.
In the music Handel maintains a sense of narrative progression, especially in Parts 1 and 2, by controlled use of key sequences and varied vocal and instrumental textures, while allowing climactic moments to emerge with dramatic clarity. The extensive choral writing (a feature that has made Messiah especially endearing to both listeners and singers) exhibits in itself a great range of style, from formal fugue (as in ‘And with his stripes’) to the full-blown mix of counterpoint and block harmony that we think of as particularly Handelian. In the sequence ‘Since by man came death’ Handel even manages to make the style of each section (‘antique’ unaccompanied voices answered by vigorous instrumentally reinforced declamation) expressive of the theology of the old Adam yielding to the new Christ. Four of the choruses (‘And he shall purify’, ‘For unto us a child is born’, ‘His yoke is easy’ and ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’) gain internal variety of texture from their origins in two chamber duets (‘Quel fior ch’al alba ride’ and ‘No, di voi non vuò fidarmi’) that Handel had composed shortly before Messiah. He extends the two-part vocal writing by passing it around different pairings of the choral voices and adding—most thrillingly in ‘For unto us a child is born’—new music for the full chorus. (The sequence ‘O Death, where is thy sting? … But thanks be to God’ is more soberly based on another chamber duet written in the 1720s, ‘Se tu non lasci amore’.)
The orchestral colour of Messiah is comparatively restrained, in that, uniquely among Handel’s major works, the original score has no indication of woodwind participation. The reason may be only that he was uncertain what instrumental forces would be available to him in Dublin, as he certainly used oboes and bassoons in his London performances, and he wrote oboe parts for the choral setting of ‘Their sound is gone out’, added in 1745. However, the woodwind throughout simply double the strings or the choral voices, so that the new colour added when the trumpets and drums appear is especially vivid. Handel is however careful to reserve their full impact for the final choruses of Parts 2 and 3. When the trumpets make their first entry in ‘Glory to God’, without drums, they are asked to play ‘da lontano e un poco piano’ (‘in the distance and rather quietly’), giving just a little extra radiance to the depiction of the heavenly chorus proclaiming Christ’s birth. And for ‘The trumpet shall sound’, the bass solo foretelling the day of judgment, Handel writes a wonderfully effective (and quite demanding) solo for the instrument.
The participation of the brass instruments also predicates the use of the key of D major, which becomes the tonality to which the whole oratorio tends, emerging with greatest power in the dual triumphs of the Hallelujah and Amen choruses. These moments are anticipated by earlier, less assertive uses of the key: indeed it first appears as quietly as possible with the simple chord that begins the recitative ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’. For the bleakest part of the story, reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, Handel moves to E flat major and F minor, the keys furthest away from D major, but then returns to D as despair turns to hope and victory. Within the overall scheme are several momentary transitions from darkness to light, beginning with the hopeful E major (after E minor) of the tenor’s opening ‘Comfort ye’, and including the exuberance of ‘For unto us a child is born’ after the gloomy chromatic wanderings of the bass aria ‘The people that walked in darkness’. Most subtle of all is the graceful, flowing line of ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ after the desolation of ‘Behold and see’, marking the moment of Christ’s resurrection, yet holding back the full expression of rejoicing until the spread of Christ’s message is magnificently celebrated in the Hallelujah chorus.
Though Handel set the whole of Jennens’s libretto in 1741, he never in fact performed all the music of that first setting. Revisions were made before the first performances in Dublin, and new music was added for the London revivals of 1743 and 1745. The last important changes were made in 1750, when Handel composed the now well-known settings of ‘But who may abide?’ and ‘Thou art gone up on high’ for the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni. In addition Handel transposed arias at various times to suit different singers, so that the precise content of his own performances of the work varied from season to season. In recent years the variant versions have been made easily available in practical editions, and have often been taken up in performance, but a slightly modified form of the version of 1750 (as presented here, with variants close to those of 1752) has generally proved most satisfying and is the form of the work with which performers and their audiences have become comfortingly familiar.
Anthony Hicks © 2009