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Hyperion Records

CKD285 - Handel: Messiah
The Tribute Money (1629) by Rembrandt (1606-1669)

Recording details: May 2006
Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2006
Total duration: 141 minutes 23 seconds

'Butt and the Dunedin Consort marry astute scholarship to sincere artistic expression and the result is comfortably the freshest, most natural, revelatory and transparently joyful Messiah I have heard for a very long time' (Gramophone) » More

'Butt has an authoritative bass in Matthew Brook, and a superb contralto (one of three) in Clare Wilkinson, whose heart-stopping delivery of the words 'And ye shall find rest unto your souls' sets the tone for the whole performance' (The Guardian) » More

'Here's a reconstruction of the premiere in Dublin—and it's very welcome … the choir is made up of soloists who are full-toned in the weighty passages as well as light and airy in the fast movements … nothing but praise' (Classic FM Magazine)

'In the final reckoning, if I had to make a choice between recordings, my money would go on Dunedin's Messiah. It has a genuine sparkle which lifts Handel's music above the ordinary, and a fresh angle for just about every moment' (The Scotsman) » More

'In spite of the modesty of scale, conductor John Butt leads a reading that never sounds small or limited; the performers convey the full extent of the work's wide emotional range … in every aspect, this is one of the most compelling and engaging Messiahs on disc' (AllMusic, USA) » More


This superb recording, which features the Messiah as premiered by Handel in Dublin in 1742, was named the winner of Baroque Vocal Album of the Year in the 2007 Gramophone Awards.

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Why the Dublin version?
Choosing to perform Handel’s Messiah in the version presented at its very first performances, in Dublin (13 April and 3 June, 1742), does not mean that we are presenting the work in its ‘best’ or indeed in its entirely ‘original’ form. Handel seems to have composed the oratorio with no specific performers in mind, so he was prepared to adapt it for each production in turn; indeed, around ten versions are discernible in all. He certainly made some revisions in Dublin for those singers who were not of the same calibre as he enjoyed in London, so there has sometimes been a tendency to view this first performing version as critically compromised by supposedly inadequate forces. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from reconstructing the Dublin version (albeit something which cannot be done with total certainty) and, particularly, attempting to use roughly the same size of vocal forces and a similar apportionment of soloists. Some of Handel’s cuts made during the preparations for the Dublin performances were clearly designed to enhance the flow of the piece; these were retained in subsequent performances and thus do not reflect the inadequacy of the first performers.

Other changes were positive reactions to the qualities of specific singers available in Dublin. Most significant here was Handel’s decision to present one lyrical alto aria in each of the three parts to Mrs Susannah Cibber, sister of Thomas Arne. Cibber was best known as an outstanding actress, but had recently undergone the scandal of an extra-marital affair, the details of which had been described in court in astonishingly unambiguous detail. Her appearance in Dublin marked the beginning of her return to public life at a safe distance from London; although by no means expert as a singer, her performances brought a quality of expression that was clearly outstanding. The aria ‘He shall feed His flock’ in Part 1, originally cast for soprano in B flat major, was therefore transposed down to F major to suit Mrs Cibber. The aria from Part 2 (‘He was despised and rejected’—and, as it happened, a particularly prescient text for the singer concerned) was already in the correct range and, in Part 3, Handel transposed the aria ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ from G minor (soprano) to C minor, thus giving Mrs Cibber the final aria, conventionally reserved for the leading soloist.

The other major change is the replacement of the original version of the aria ‘How beautiful are the feet’ (from Romans, as chosen by Charles Jennens, the compiler of the libretto) with a duet for two altos and chorus, setting the text beginning with the same line from Isaiah 52: 7–9. Thus the opening musical material is very similar to the original but thereafter departs entirely with the chorus section ‘Break forth into joy’. This suggests that Handel was keen to adapt the work for the vocal forces available in Dublin, particularly the men of the two cathedral choirs, who were adept at singing in this ‘verse anthem’ style.

While Handel had the services of a professional Italian soprano, Christina Maria Avoglio, the remainder of the soloists were drawn from the two cathedral choirs: two male altos shared out the remaining alto solos (Joseph Ward and William Lamb); the tenor arias and recitatives were taken by James Bailey, and John Mason and John Hill sang the bass solos (Hill apparently taking only ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’). Mason and Lamb were former children of the Chapel Royal in London, and may well thus have encountered Handel before. In true cathedral fashion, all these soloists also formed the core of the chorus, so the work was not only given a broad spectrum of solo vocal colours but also a much more intimate and flexible chorus than many later performances (assuming a distinction between solo and choral forces) would lead us to expect. Another factor to consider is that Handel had used the music that was to constitute five of the Messiah choruses as Italian duets, a year or so before. To Handel, at least, these intimate but also intensely energetic and virtuosic duets would have been in his mind when he wrote and directed the first performances of Messiah.

The challenge then, in this recording, has been to try to recapture something of the freshness of the first public performances of Messiah, imagining what it was like to hear the work for the very first time when many moments must have been quite unexpected. By analysing the lists of adult singers in the two cathedral choirs and subtracting the number who were likely to have been ordained (and thus excluded from secular performances) Donald Burrows has suggested that the original chorus probably consisted of no more than three or four voices to a part. This certainly allows us to capitalise on the existing strengths of the Dunedin Consort, which comprises singers who are equally adept at solo, ensemble and choral singing. We have thus been able to apportion the solo areas in more or less exactly the way Handel did (although we have slightly altered the way in which the two ‘cathedral’ altos are employed). We have also kept in mind the virtuosic origins of at least some of the choruses and the level of detail and expression that a smaller group of expert singers might be able to achieve.

The sequence of movements in the Dublin version also brings its own particular pacing: the alto versions of the final arias of Parts 1 and 3 create a more striking contrast between the increased mellow character of each aria and the respective final chorus. With the various cuts and abbreviations made towards the end of Part 2, there is, conversely, rather more momentum from the end of ‘How beautiful are the feet’ towards the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. We have also borne in mind the division of each part into ‘scenes’, which is provided in the libretto for the London performances of 1743. Handel would, in all likelihood, have paced his oratorios in much the same way as he did for his operas.

The Dublin orchestra, expertly led by Matthew Dubourg, comprised only strings, two trumpets and timpani, although the exact size is unknown. Handel had his own organ transported to Ireland, according to a letter discovered by Burrows, so this was presumably used in the Messiah performances, perhaps by the composer himself (it is mentioned specifically for the new version of ‘How beautiful are the feet’); we assume that the harpsichord was used much of the time too.

Towards a text of the Dublin version
The seminal work in deciding which movements and versions belonged to each performance of Messiah was undertaken by Watkins Shaw, but several details remained uncertain. Later scholars, Donald Burrows in particular, have made considerable strides in circumscribing the range from which choices for the Dublin version can be made.

There are, essentially, four main sources of information for the Dublin version: the original autograph score (British Library); the ‘conducting’ score (Bodleian Library, Oxford), prepared by Handel’s assistant, J C Smith the elder; the libretto printed for the Dublin performances; newspaper reports. One copy of the libretto (British Library) is fairly comprehensively marked up in pencil with the names of Dublin soloists, so this has generally been taken as the main source of information on who sang what. Unfortunately, the situation is not a simple as it might sound since the libretto contains several obvious errors and the apportionment of solos is not always consistent with that in other sources. While the newspapers clearly state that Signora Avoglio sang the soprano solos in the first performance, the pencilled notes in the libretto unequivocally assign these to ‘Mrs Mclean’; perhaps the latter took over in the second performance.

The two arias adapted for Mrs Cibber and the new duet and chorus version of ‘How beautiful are the feet’ are the most certain elements of the Dublin version. Next in level of likelihood are the cuts that Handel made in preparing the Dublin performances: these probably included the shortening of the da capo for ‘The trumpet shall sound’, the contraction of the duet ‘O death, where is thy sting’, and the dramatic shortening of the bass aria ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?’. The libretto implies that three arias are replaced by recitatives: ‘But who may abide the day of His coming?’, bass (Part 1); ‘Thou art gone up on high’, bass, (Part 2); and ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’, tenor, the final aria of Part 2. Although a recitative version does indeed survive for ‘But who may abide’, this is found in sources considerably later than those used for Dublin, and may well be of doubtful authenticity. Moreover, the bass aria as it appears in the conducting score itself contains a cut towards the end, which could suggest that Handel had already shortened it with the Dublin singer in mind. For this recording, we have decided to adopt the full bass version of the aria in the sequence of the recording, placing the surviving recitative version in the appendix.

There is no trace of a recitative version of ‘Thou art gone up on high’ in either the Dublin sources or in later copies; the title ‘recitative’ in the libretto may well thus be one of its many misprints, so we have recorded the aria in its original bass version. There is an authentic recitative version of ‘Thou shalt break them’ in the conducting score (to be appended to the recitative ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’), so this was most likely the version used in the Dublin performances. We have provided this extended recitative without aria in the main sequence of the recording, presenting the original recitative and aria in the appendix.

The issues surrounding the Dublin version of ‘Rejoice greatly!’, the soprano aria of Part 1, are complex. Handel originally conceived this as a full da capo aria in 12/8 metre. At some stage he shortened this version, by ingeniously cutting the second half of the A section and then reusing much of this as the modified da capo (this formed the basis for the final version, in 4/4 time). Given that all trace of the 12/8 version is now missing from the conducting score, we have no direct evidence of how Handel may have performed it in Dublin. Certainly, this aria is marked ‘da capo’ in the Dublin libretto (unreliable though this sometimes may be), so we have opted for the full-length version. Moreover, given that Avoglio was perhaps the most professional singer in the entire vocal complement, it makes sense to enlarge her role (particularly since she has lost both ‘He shall feed His flock’ and ‘If God be for us’ to Mrs Cibber, undoubtedly the greater celebrity but probably not the greater singer). We have also followed the annotation in the Dublin libretto by which the sequence of four short tenor pieces (‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ to ‘But thou didst not leave’) is given to soprano (‘Mrs Mclean’).

Given that Handel seemed to have gone out of his way to enlarge the ‘Pifa’ in the autograph and that the original shorter version is only positively documented for later performances, I have assumed that the longer version belonged to the Dublin version. Another difficult case involves the four extra bars in the first aria, ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’, which essentially double the length of the piano alternating figure in the opening and closing ritornellos. There is no way of determining when these were cut, although secondary copies suggest that they had disappeared fairly early in the history of the work. If there were ever an occasion to hear them, this would most likely be in the Dublin version.

I am particularly grateful to the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities (CCARH), Stanford University, California, for allowing us to use their performing materials for Messiah. This edition takes Friedrich Chrysander’s nineteenth-century edition as its starting point, with revisions by Nicholas McGegan, Eleanor Selfridge-Field and John Roberts. I have adapted this multiple-version resource for the Dublin version, undertaking further revisions and corrections of the text (these will be added to CCARH’s materials). I am particularly grateful to Donald Burrows for some excellent spirited discussion of the Dublin version; however, he should be held by no means responsible for any of the decisions I have had to take in relation to the more contentious areas of the Dublin text.

John Butt © 2006

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