For the first performance in Dublin in 1741 Handel had a choir of 26 trebles and altos and tenors and basses, all from the two Dublin cathedrals. By the centenary performance in 1784 (the organisers mistook Handel’s birth-date,1685) there were 513 performers in all, and in the mid-18th century the Crystal Palace entertained 4,500 performers and an audience of 87,769. (who, I wonder, counted them?).
A recent performance in the Handel House, 25 Brook Street in Mayfair, used only one voice to each choral part due to constraints of space. Music in the Castle comes a close second with two-to-a- part voices, single strings, oboe, trumpet, timps and continuo.
Such sparse forces invite all kinds of interpretative nuances. First, small forces are so much more nimble that larger ones that we sing fast movements with a exceptional verve and sparkle. ‘Rejoice greatly’ with string quartet and continuo is wonderfully exuberant, the ‘Nations rage together’ with perfect balance of voice and tremolo strings. ‘His yoke is’ – easier, quieter, more transparent, and ‘All we, like sheep’, (carefully punctuated to avoid declaring a preference for Sunday lunch) ‘have gone astray’ further than is possible with weighty forces.
The lighter touch also suggests interpretative changes. For example, the so-called ‘Pastoral Sinfony’ which Handel subtitled ‘Pifa’ refers to a jolly dance accompanied by pifferi, raucous rustic reed instruments. Though Handel asked from strings, he surely didn’t intend to depict shepherds trudging leaden-footedly down-hill to the manger after the stunning experience of first an angel of the Lord, and then ‘a multitude of the heavenly host’!
The Hallelujah chorus, perhaps the most recorded and familiar piece in the classical repertoire, was refreshed by beginning quietly in awe-struck wonder at the Resurrection before all inhibitions were cast aside after the quiet string interjections. Clarity, tempi, and transparent sonorities allowed us to emphasis Handel’s genius as dramatist, with 42 operas and then the transfer of such drama to (mainly old-testament) plots in over 30 oratorios. On several occasions one common tempo bound together the music into an operatic-style scena, sustaining the drama over several successive numbers. Our viciously mocking ‘He trusted in God’ was modelled on the crowd hysteria all-too-often projected today from the Middle-East onto our TV screens.
The choir, at risk of being reduced to seven singers as a bass suffered an unmanageable cold, was restored by the timpanist joining in the choruses – whether he sang and simultaneously played timps was not revealed! – while the other bass sang all the solos – magnificently. This reflected the spirit of a provincial house-concert, very much evident in the Courtenay archives of Powderham Castle where there are books of ‘airs from Handel’s most popular operas and oratorios’, some string parts form Messiah and a solo part from ‘The trumpet shall sound’.
For the performers, this was a truly memorable performance, as it was too for an absolutely capacity audience.
George Pratt – Kapellmeister