Saturday, November 7, 2009

In review--Exalted baroque

Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton 
George Frideric Handel
Hyperion Records

I am not a religious person, but when I listen to Handel’s Messiah, I feel a certain holiness enter the room—the space becomes sacred.  Oddly, a Handel expert told me last year that the baroque composer was not particularly religious.  True he had composed other oratorios with Biblical themes before composing the music for Messiah, but he did recycle material from his secular operas to appear as arias in Messiah.  However, this exalted music with its fiery arias and stunning orchestral interludes, must have given old Handel some pause for religious thought.  The libretto alone tells a powerful story of prophecy, suffering and transcendence, as well as, faith in Divine Providence.
Handel reworked the oratorio several times, adding arias for soloist and most notably for the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, in 1750.  The original performance of Messiah took place in 1741.  Polyphony and Britten Sinfonia perform the 1752 version.  They employ a small orchestra and choir.  The soloists for this performance include soprano Julia Doyle, countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Allen Clayton and bass Andrew Foster-Williams, four vocalists that work well off of each other.  The performance was recorded in St. John’s, Smith Square in London on December 22 and 23, 2008.
The recording feels in the moment with dynamic singing and beautiful orchestral passages punctuated by regal brass, organ and harpsichord.  Lasting for the length of a feature-length film, Messiah begins with Old Testament text in Part One with the prophecy of the coming Messiah.  The countertenor aria sung by Davies, track 6, But who may abide sends chills up my spine.  And in fact, the countertenor gets a workout in Part One since he sings a total of 5 arias.
The crowning glory of Part Two is the Hallelujah chorus which brings in rich counterpoint vocals, razor sharp horns and rolling timpani.  The chorus, in my opinion, ranks as one of the most beautiful passages in the history of classical music.   Part Three opens with another gorgeous passage, the soprano aria, I know that my redeemer liveth sung beautifully by Doyle.  Later in the same section, Davies and Clayton sing the hauntingly gorgeous aria O death where is thy sting?  And Doyles’ interpretation of If God be for us, who can be against us? is spellbinding. 
More counterpoint with the full choir and soloists perform the dramatic Amen chorus.  I find this interpretation of Handel’s Messiah richly rewarding.  I prefer recordings with smaller orchestras and with baroque instruments.  Four hundred years after the birth of Handel, the oratorio Messiah lives on in the hearts of classical musicians, Christians and aficionados of baroque music.  Whether or not Handel experienced Divine Intervention when composing the oratorio remains a mystery, but certainly when I listen to Messiah, something stirs profoundly in my soul.  In fact, I give high recommendations for Handel's oratorio and challenge even agnostics to give a listen and not feel moved by spirit.  And certainly Polyphony’s performance deserves a few listens this season.  It reminds us to overcome our collective despair despite the darkness we all face.

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