Every year, when we find ourselves reaching the Christmas season, I find myself inexorably drawn to Handel’s 1741 masterpiece, Messiah. Although there are a few external causes for this (one being my strong preference for classical music to strike a Christmas theme), my primary reasoning for this is the strength of the music and the composition. Indeed, there are other fine pieces of classical music that are identifiable with the Christmas season (Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Tchaikovski’s Nutcracker ballet, another oratorio by Heinrich Schütz), which I do in fact strive to bring onto the show. However, even if one omits consideration of the long-standing popularity of the piece (Mozart himself wrote an adaptation, K. 572, in 1789), there are some truly compelling aspects of the work that drive me to reach for it every year during the Christmas season.
One really must start with the libretto. Written by frequent collaborator Charles Jennens (who wrote librettos for 5 of Handel’s oratorios), Messiah makes no attempt to dramatize the events of Christ’s life (unlike Bach’s two known Passions, for instance). Instead, Jennens focused on scriptural references, from both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, allowing the Bible to essentially speak for itself through music, much like the Psalmist is believed to have done at one point. Of course, little of this would matter if the underlying composition had not been so inspired. Indeed, Messiah gave the world some truly wonderful choral passages (the infamous Hallelujah chorus, but also parts like “His yoke is easy”, “and with his stripes we are healed”, among others), gorgeous airs for contralto (“He was despised”), and some truly electrifying airs for bass (“The trumpet shall sound”, “Why do the nations?”) – just a few of the instantly memorable parts that make Messiah stand out among other music that would compete for our Christmas season airtime.
Tonight’s recording is also something special. Featuring Margaret Price (soprano), Yvonne Minton (contralto), Alexander Young (tenor) and Justino Diaz (bass), with Colin Tilney on the harpsichord and organ, along with the Amor Artis Chorale and the English Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Johannes Somary, the ensemble turned in a truly splendid performance. It was recorded in 1970, right when the historical performance method was starting to really catch on. Somary, in the liner notes, noted that the Dublin newspapers, in discussing the piece’s premiere, referred to Messiah as an ‘elegant entertainment’. One truly feels this elegance coming out in the performance: not overpowering, but perfectly balanced, light when lightness was called for, intense when needed. When Diaz sings “thou shalt dash them!” (in the aforementioned “Why do the nations?”), one can almost feel a corresponding thunderclap. When Price sings the aria that starts Part III, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, I have been known to get misty-eyed.
Of course, that is what Handel probably wanted. 🙂