George Frideric Handel and His Messiah: The Perfect Holiday Collection
In addition to Handel's revisions to his oratorio, Mozart was charged with re-orchestrating Messiah and several other Handel Oratorios. In 1788, at the behest of Baron van Sweiten, Mozart re-orchestrated the oratorios for a series of private performances at the homes of the Vienna elite. Mozart made the changes he did for two major reasons. First, Mozart tweaked the orchestral style, including the phrase length, to make it more contemporary. Second, Mozart added new wind parts, complementing or replacing the original parts as composed by Handel. This was done to support the continuo organ, which was not available everywhere Mozart's arrangement was to be played. Mozart favored a larger chorus, most likely comprised of 30 men and boys, for performances of his arrangement, a larger group than that used by Handel. All of Mozart's changes were made to inject the "Classical" into this Baroque piece.
Most modern conductors have assembled the oratorio as inspired, freely incorporating elements of all three versions in inauthentic concert programs, fairly in keeping with Handel's own practice of tweaking his composition. After Handel's death, there have been many composers and conductors who felt they knew truly Handelian vision. This resulted in continual revision to the score and instrumentation and vocals, the majority with bad results. There dose exist several editions of the oratorio worth mentioning:
- Clifford Bartlett: Messiah. Oxford University Press
- Donald Burrows: Messiah. Edition Peters
- John Tobin: Messiah. Bärenreiter (Hallische Händel Ausgabe)
- Watkins Shaw: Messiah. Novello (New Novello Handel Series)
To further complicate this picture, the erstwhile listener will have to contend with performance practices: modern instruments versus period instruments will have to be considered. Historically informed performance versus contemporary performances will also have to be addressed. This infusion of period practice is the result of a great deal of scholarship. The results are variable, but none of the results are truly bad. In addition to my above breakdown of Messiah versions, the venerable Handel website, GFHandel.org makes the following distinctions and recommendations:
1742 Dublin version (approximate reconstruction):
Worcester Cathedral Choir, Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy, Jean-Claude Malgoire / Sony (Essential Classics) SBK63004
1752 version (only authentic conventional SATB version): Choir of King's College, Cambridge; The Brandeburg Consort; Stephen Cleobury / Argo - 440 672-2
1754 Foundling Hospital version (SSATB): Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; The Academy of Ancient Music; Christopher Hogwood / Decca (L'Oiseau Lyre) 430 488-2 Taverner Choir, Taverner Players, Andrew Parrott / Virgin Veritas 5613302 Gabrieli Consort & Players; Paul McCreesh / DG Archiv - 453 464-2
The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner / Philips Digital Classics 4342972
The Choir of the English Concert; The English Concert; Trevor Pinnock / DG Archiv-423 630-2
Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki / BIS-CD-891/892
Comprehensive variants all included on:
UC Berekely Chamber Chorus; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan / Harmonia Mundi - HMU 907050.52 (3 CDs)
Mozart's arrangement (in German):
Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert; Hermann Max / EMI Baroque Special-CDS 7 54353 2
Namur Chamber Choir; Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy; Jean-Claude Malgoire / Astrée-Audivis E8509
From my humble perspective, one performance is no better than the next, only different.
Here is a smattering of some recent and not so recent treatments of Messiah for the listener's consideration (in no particular order):
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
A stripped-down orchestra and chorus give an amazingly full-bodied performance of the original 1742 composition. The soloists are also part of the chorus, in keeping with the standard practice in Handel's time. For the price, this well-received performance should not be ignored. One of a few recordings using the "original" version. 1742 Version on period instruments and historically-informed performance.
The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra / Harry Christophers
Hyperion Dyad 22019
Released in the mid-priced Dyad Hyperion Series, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen provide a crisp period instrument performance. The tempi tend to be slightly fast and all of the soloists are excellent, if not fully up to the level of other recordings. This is a fine middle-of-the-road performance that has much to endorse it. 1754 Version on period instruments and historically informed performance.
Gabrieli Consort and Players / Paul McCreesh
Archiv / Deutsche Gramophone 453464