|John Butt and the orchestra of the Dunedin Consort|
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on May 13 2016
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 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 who sang in the first|
performance of Messiah in Dublin
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
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
Elsewhere on this blog:
- A work in progress: Bellini's first opera Adelson e Salvini - concert review
- The power of five: Songs to the Moon from the Myrthen Ensemble - CD review
- The art is in putting people together: artistic director Douglas Boyd talks about Garsington Opera's new season - interview
- Firmly intent concentration on the music itself: Vox Luminis at the Cadogan Hall - concert review
- Strength, discipline & delicacy: Alexandra Dariescu, Fabien Gabel and RPO - concert review
- Adelina Patti, hurdy-gurdies & a Scots dance band: How to be HIP at Kings Place - feature article
- Beethoven, Dvorak & a constellation: Trio Celeste - CD review
- Strongly characterised: new music by Reiko Füting - CD review
- Intimate charm: Handel's Acis and Galatea - Concert review
- Impressive achievement, vibrant sound: Elgar's Symphony No. 1 from Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra and members of WNO Orchesta, conductor George Jackson - concert review
- The delight of having both: Mendelssohn & Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Middle Temple Hall - theatre review
- Much to admire: ENO season launch - new article