Friday 27 December 2013

Large voices and extra instruments - styles in performing baroque music

Walter Widdop
In 1973, fresh out of university I joined the local choral society in the Scottish town in which I was working. They did a traditional repertoire including Elgar's Music Makers and Handel's Messiah which was the first work I sang with them. The conductor was a mature gentleman whose name I have forgotten. He talked about the period in the 50's when he was a young conductor. Conducting his first Messiah he was accused of knocking 45 minutes of the running time, though his speed would not seem outrageous today. The same gentleman also opined that the running time for Messiah could be gauged from the speed at which the chorus could sing the fast semi-quaver passages.

Nowadays it is difficult to remember that this style of performance was once the norm. Whilst modern choral societies sing Bach and Handel with a moderate stateliness, few I would imagine give it the massiveness which was common in pre-war Britain.

This applied to soloists as much as to chorus. The distinguished Wagnerian tenor, Walter Widdop had a parallel career in oratorio. English oratorio was a thriving business, in an era when few English singers had international careers; most sang oratorio almost exclusively. The soprano Isobel Baillie made very few operatic appearances, her status derived from her oratorio and recital appearances.

There is a story told about Walter Widdop, almost certainly apocryphal, that after a performance of Wagner at Covent Garden (Widdop sang both Lohengrin and Siegmund there), someone met him on a train travelling North. Widdop was complimented on his previous night's performance, but brushed this off saying he was going home to sing some proper music, Handel.

These performances would have had a largeness of scale and a stateliness that we nowadays would not countenance. But there is also an interesting effect which is, I think under explored; that of requiring relatively large voices to have the flexibility to sing Handel's passage-work. It seems to have generated a style of focussed, flexible singing which can be a world away from modern dramatic voices.

This tradition of the large scale oratorio arose from the Handel centenary commemoration performances in 1785 when the performers consisted of 59 sopranos, 48 altos, 83 tenors, and 84 basses; 48 first and 47 second violins, 26 violas, 21 violoncellos, 15 double basses, 6 flutes, 26 oboes, 26 bassoons, 1 double bassoon, 12 trumpets, 12 horns, 6 trombones, 4 drums and organ. For these performances, the orchestra was factored up in proportion with lots of oboes. In fact, it would be fascinating to recreate one of these large scale period performances, surely an ideal project for the Proms.

From this type of large scale performance developed one accompanied by a symphony orchestra with added accompaniment, heavily influenced by the Mozart orchestration. These extra instruments were needed to fill in the harmony in the absence of keyboard continuo.

Smaller scale performances came in with advent of such groups as the English Chamber Orchestra leading to the eventual rediscovery of period practice and such ground-breaking recordings as Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of a Music's Messiah and Joshua Rifkin's one-to-a-part Bach Mass in B minor.

But there was a movement, even before then. Sir Thomas Beecham, on the earlier of his post war recordings of Messiah used a mixture of large and small choirs, Beecham recognising that some choruses needed the flexibility that a chamber chorus can bring.

With a generation of performers going up knowing period performances of works like Messiah even ensembles playing on modern instruments use far more period practice than would have been conceivable 20 years ago, though attitudes have been slow in chancing. During the Handel centenary in 1985, the Royal Opera cast the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as Handel's Samson. Coming to the end of his career, his performance was full of thrilling drama but there was no denying that he could not get his voice tidily round the passagework. Similarly the Handel centenary concert at Westminster Abbey included soprano Pauline Tinsley, then moving from Verdi to Wagner and hardly an obvious choice for the sopranos solos.

I must confess that, much as I love historically informed performance practice, I have a fascination with the early performance styles. The sound of Walter Widdop singing the Benedictus from Bach's Mass in B Minor or Sound an Alarm from Handel's Judas Maccabeus.
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