Some Handel aficionados are not all that keen on attending yet another performance of Messiah, but some of us welcome them all, particularly performances of some of the Handel-sanctioned versions which are less often heard. This year the Halle Handel Festival included two different and rarely performed variants, one being the 1742 Dublin première, the other being the first London version of 1743. The first was performed in the Dom (Reform Cathedral), the second in the Marktkirche, both venues with significant Handel associations.

<i>Messiah</i> in Halle © Stiftung Händel-Haus
Messiah in Halle
© Stiftung Händel-Haus

Standard common-or-garden Messiahs usually more or less replicate later London versions, from 1745 to 1750, when charity performances at the Foundling Hospital began. The 1742 and 1743 versions differ from the initial autograph version mainly based on Handel’s responses to the singers he had available, particularly Susannah Cibber in 1742 and Kitty Clive in 1743 in positive ways, and the reduction of the tenor and bass parts in 1742 due to singer deficiencies. For example, in 1742 the air “But who may abide” was reduced to a recitative. One of the delights of both versions is the 12/8 version of “Rejoice”, much more lyrical than the more triumphalist 4/4 version.

Messiah Fassung London 1743 was performed by Concerto Köln under the direction of Howard Arman, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Choir. Rather than four or five soloists, the airs were sung by rotating members of the choir – five sopranos, seven altos, five tenors and four basses. This was presumably done in a spirit of collegial endeavour (or for some other reason – none of the previously announced singers appeared at all), but it did mean that the quality of the solos was variable. Some singers sounded like fully blown soloists, others sounded more like members of the choir. One did wonder if, for all of their sweetness, some of the sopranos were audible down the back of the church. The choir per se was remarkable for its clear English diction, and this applied to most, if not quite all, the soloists.

The work opened with a sonorous if slow-ish rendition of the Sinfony. The actual sound of the choir, as distinct from its diction, was a little indistinct at times, but generally displayed good discipline and also commitment, as did all the soloists. The orchestra played very well indeed, with some quite speedy tempi after the overture. Arman conducted with great intensity and attention to detail, obviously having a good grasp of the overall architecture of the work, and maintaining momentum throughout. This was particularly important as it was perfomed without a signicant interval, just short tuning pauses between the parts.

In 1743, “But who may abide” was sung by a bass, unlike the usual modern version with alto or even soprano, and the lower voice worked well on this occasion. “The people who walked in darkness”, definitely a bass aria, was also sung confidently. “And lo, the angel of the Lord” was reworked for Clive into “But lo, the angel of the Lord”, and the soprano sang it with some lovely high notes. “Rejoice” similarly was sung with very nicely in a sweet, if not large, voice.

The suffering or passion section was managed very well, with a heartfelt and smoothly sung “He was despised” and an equally committed “Thy rebuke has broken his heart”, with “He was cut off” leading into the uplifting “But thou did’st not leave his soul in hell” which marks the beginning of the redemption passage. The chorus “Lift up your heads” was sung with appropriate joy and energy. “Hallelujah” started softly but swelled into a very well judged bursting forth of praise and rejoicing. “I know that my redeemer liveth” was sung with some nice high notes, but did not perhaps quite catch the serene confidence needed. The bass involved in “The trumpet shall sound” sang with ringing tone, not aggressively but just right there on the notes. The “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen” provided a glorious conclusion.

Excellent as this performance was, it was not as revelatory as the 1742 (Dubliner Fassung) version performed a few days earlier by the English “Baroque collective”, Solomon’s Knot. In this production, there were eight soloists (SSAATTBB) who performed the choruses as well as the solos. The orchestral forces were small – only 2 violins and one of everything else except oboes, which were not used in the Dublin première. The director was one of the basses, Jonathan Sells, and the group emanates from Cambridge. While not adhering completely to the Dublin performance (“But who may abide” was sung as a bass air), it was nevertheless a good opportunity for comparison with 1743. What really made this performance stand out however was the way the singers all engaged with each other, and the audience, in a display of incredible emotional involvement, dramatic power and communication.