Are you one of those people who can’t peel the Christmas sprouts without listening to Handel? Or do you instead look forward to Easter Monday because it means no more Messiah until December? At the time of writing, there are more than fifty performances of Messiah, in all shapes and sizes, listed on Bachtrack for this Christmas, and if you’re in an English-speaking bit of the world, you probably don’t have to go far to find one.

© Gerald Coke | Handel Foundation
© Gerald Coke | Handel Foundation
As for me, I’m of the opinion that Messiah is not just for Christmas or Easter, so let me take you on my personal guided tour around Handel’s greatest hit, beginning with the overture, whose solemn dotted-rhythm E minor chords immediately grab the attention, before the music plunges into an urgent fugue – here’s a man with a story to tell. The legends about Handel being filled with divine inspiration when he wrote Messiah don’t ring true to me, as he seems to have been a very down-to-earth, practical sort of chap, but the overture certainly gives the impression that this is music he needed to write.

The overture could easily have come from a baroque opera, and Handel uses a few other standard operatic devices in Messiah – the pastoral interlude, a couple of da capo arias where the soloist can show off, and a classic rage aria, “Who may abide”. Handel rewrote his original bass version for the Italian castrato Gaetano Guagdani in 1750, adding the magnificent “refiner’s fire” passages, flames of longs quavers flickering relentlessly up and down the singer’s range. It’s pretty low in the register for contraltos and counter-tenors alike, and is a good illustration of the technical challenges posed by Messiah, but listen to Hillary Summers who gives the impression that she could easily get another octave below those rich low notes:

There are plenty more thrilling, virtuosic arias and choruses in Messiah but some of my favourite bits are little corners of the recitatives, where Handel turns the whole world around on just a simple shift in his harmony. One of the best is “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth”; when the last line shifts unexpectedly into F# major, as the soloist tells us that glorious message of redemption that begins with the first aria, Comfort ye, and underlies the whole of Messiah, is for everyone.

Part One is the Christmas part of Messiah, with much of the text coming from Isaiah’s prophecies, texts that are embedded in our national consciousness because we hear them read at every Christmas carol service: “For unto us a child is born”, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”, as well as the only extended passage directly from the Gospels, when the angels descend to earth, heralded by a breathless soprano recitative and off-stage trumpets. I think that our deep national affection for Messiah lies partly in the text, for we have not only Handel’s marvellous music but also one of the finest and most-treasured works of written English, the King James Bible. There’s also something very English about the choice of texts made by Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens. Instead of confronting the dying Christ and our role in his tragedy face on, as Bach makes us do, Handel and Jennens let us skirt politely around the edge, with oblique references and allusions, leaving us to fill in the gaps.

In Part Two, Messiah moves on to the story of Christ’s death, with a long run of demanding choruses. Jennens and Handel begin with meditations on our sin and redemption, and although it’s easy to dismiss most of “All we like sheep” for being a bit frothy (albeit a fun challenge to sing), it ends with slow-burning twisting harmonies of real guilt in the final bars. All my personal favourite choruses come in Part Two: the alternation between jagged lines and soothing balm in “And with his stripes”, the venom of “He trusted in God”, where, just for a moment, the chorus become the menacing crowd of a Bach Passion, baying for blood, and “Their sound is gone out” a gorgeously gentle little chorus with another of those wonderful Handelian chord shifts. Sadly this last one is usually one of the choruses that gets cut by those who need to trim their Messiahs, which is a great shame.

And so we come at the end of Part Two and the start of Part Three to the emotional heart of Messiah, and two of Handel’s greatest hits. When it comes to “Hallejulah”, there’s no space for cynicism: forget how much it gets over-used and abused, forget the tiresome debate about the tradition of standing, just let yourself go and imagine you’re hearing it, or singing it, for the very first time, and permit yourself be carried away on its wave of exaltation. Think of the trumpets who’ve been waiting for so long to unleash their jubilation, get to your feet and celebrate with the musicians. Yes, no doubt the tradition of standing is based on a dubious provenance, but where else in a formal classical music setting are the audience allowed to express their emotion like this? It’s also a great joy for the choir to see the audience rise to their feet, and it never fails to move me.

After all that excitement Handel draws us back to Messiah’s message of hope and redemption with the most sublime aria, and again, both the soloist and the audience have to treat “I know that my Redeemer liveth” as if it’s being sung for the very first time. The most moving performance of it I have ever heard was by an incredibly talented young soprano, singing her first solo Messiah, in Durham Cathedral, with open-hearted grace and freshness that fitted the music perfectly. There’s no recording, but here’s Lynne Dawson instead:

Handel winds up Messiah with reflections from St Paul’s teachings about Christ, and there’s another of those lovely little recitative turns of mood as the bass sings about how we shall all be changed, before he launches off into his brilliant duet with the solo trumpet. Handel is so sparing with his instrumentation in Messiah – it’s only scored for strings and keyboard, with the option to have oboes doubling the violins, which makes the jubilant solo “The Trumpet Shall Sound” all the more effective.

There’s no respite for the choir, for after nearly three hours of music, Handel gives the singers one final blast with more than ten pages of energetic and complex fugue, with one of his notorious bars of total silence right at the end, just to make sure everyone is still concentrating.

Messiah is one of those pieces that seems to transcend the performance: it doesn’t matter if it’s being sung by a swish little group of professionals with period instruments, or belted out by four thousand musicians in the inflated performances that were all the rage in the nineteenth century; a Messiah that is sung with true love and affection is far better than a technically brilliant performance sung without feeling. Here’s the final Amen, in a performance that combines both: