Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Listening for the first time: Messiah with the Dunedin Consort

John Butt and the orchestra of the Dunedin Consort
John Butt and the orchestra of the Dunedin Consort
Handel Messiah; Dr Ruth Smith, Dunedin Consort, John Butt; London Festival of Baroque Music, St John’s Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on May 13 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Powerful stuff: Handel's original Dublin version of Messiah performed by 12 singers

This year’s London Festival of Baroque Music is the second of the post-Lufthansa era and has as its theme 'The Word: voice and verse in harmony'. Two concerts are dubbed 'God Spake the Word': the festival opener with the original Dublin version of Messiah, and the Westminster Abbey performance of Israel in Egypt on 17 May. Amazingly, this was the first performance of Messiah in the 30-year history of the Festival. Performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort at St John's Smith Square on 13 May 2016, with soloists Joanne Lunn, Meg Bragle, Esther Brazil, Joshua Ellicott, Edward Grint, and Robert Davies. Messiah was preceded by a talk by Dr Ruth Smith and followed by a post-concert discussion with John Butt.

The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed
The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin,
where Messiah was first performed
In her pre-concert talk, Dr Ruth Smith put Handel’s oratorios into the context of 18th Century thought and political events. Musically, the tension in England (and Protestant Ireland) at the time was between the Catholic, effete Italian opera sung by ‘half-men’ and ‘overpaid women’, and the need for a strong, robust, Protestant music. Discussion about the role of words in church music had been going on for two centuries already: one thing to be worked around was the decree that the name of God could only be set to a single syllable, for fear of creating an insidious effect on our minds…

The King James Bible, set to music, was thought to have the potential to bring a fractious nation together. This was a document intended to be read aloud, ideal for rousing choruses and memorable, thought-provoking images: ‘refiner’s fire’, ‘potter’s vessel’. It was intended to supplant the ‘heathen texts’ of Virgil and Homer whilst also having a broader appeal than some of the rarefied Enlightenment texts. A non-native speaker of English, Handel was intimately acquainted with the King James Bible. Ruth Smith suggested that he set out to ensure that listeners properly took in the text of Messiah, by changing the stressed words in a sentence, giving every line of the Word of God its best chance of being heard and understood.

So with that in mind, I decided to set myself a reviewer’s challenge of listening to the piece with the ears of someone in that first audience in Dublin in Holy Week in 1742.
John Butt’s version is a reconstruction of that event, with its orchestra of strings, organ, timps and trumpets but no woodwinds, a choir of a dozen singers of which six were ‘concertists’ and six ‘ripienists’. The line-up for Dublin included the London actress Susannah Cibber – Thomas Arne’s sister – singing on some of the alto solos (not that she was a name in Dublin, rather that she was a stage actress with a dramatic presence).

Susannah Cibber
Susannah Cibber who sang in the first
performance of Messiah in Dublin
The mere fact that we heard a different version from the usual one made us pay more attention anyway, but there was much more besides to make us sit up and listen with fresh ears. After the Sinfony the tenor soloist came forward looked at everyone in the audience in ‘Comfort ye, my people’, and the aria ‘Ev’ry valley’ showed us a jagged landscape turning into a more hospitable one.

What struck me throughout was that there was a lot of air around the singing. It was intimate and immediate, yet gave us space to think about the words. The smaller forces helped, as did the way the different voices and instruments came into focus when it was their ‘turn’. One of many highlights was ‘He was despised’ …and rejected of Men. ‘And that means you’ the alto implied with her hard stare. All of this drew out the Christian story of redemption as a Mystery, not a rational, Enlightenment tale; the performers were saying: ‘No, you’re right, it doesn’t add up’.

Did I manage to listen to the piece as if for the first time, in spite of having heard it and sung it for at least forty years? I honestly think I did. Only at the very beginning of the Hallelujah Chorus did I hear other performances in my head. I focused on the trajectory of the drama as it unfolded in front of me – Old Testament chaos, and the promise of salvation from a man who was misunderstood and mistreated – by us – but who nevertheless gives us honour Glory and Power. This drama was described to us by a number of people like us – earnest, credulous, scared, relieved. It was powerful stuff. Definitely an exercise to be repeated. Especially when you think you know a piece.

The post-concert by John Butt was a fascinating discussion of the many versions of the work: the one we hear mostly now – ‘THE’ Messiah – has evolved from a palette of elements to be included or excluded according to the availability and talents (or otherwise) of local singers and players. And so, it really is possible to listen to this piece as if for the first time, and in versions that were sanctioned by Handel himself.

Two must-reads: Ruth Smith’s excellent programme note in the Festival programme, and John Butt’s CD sleeve note from the Linn Records site (PDF opens in new window)
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford


The concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 7pm, and will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.

Handel: Messiah

Dunedin Consort
Joanne Lunn – soprano
Meg Bragle – alto 1
Esther Brazil – alto 2
Joshua Ellicott – tenor
Edward Grint – bass 1
Robert Davies – bass 2
John Butt – harpsichord & director

Pre-concert talk ‘Only Words’ by Dr Ruth Smith
Post-concert talk ‘Words on the Page’ by John Butt

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