Archive for Messiah

Messiah in Dublin

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2018 by telescoper

On 10th December last year I posted a review of a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Cardiff. At the end of that item I wondered where I would be listening to Messiah in 2018. Well, the answer to that question turned out to be at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, the city where Messiah received its premiere way back in 1742.

Messiah was initially performed at Easter (on 13th April 1742) and it’s by no means clear (to me) why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas piece. The work actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1), the Passion of Christ (Part II), culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

The printed programme for last night (cover shown above) included the first advertisement for the first performance of Messiah:

For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday 12th April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr Handel’s new Grand Oratorio MESSIAH…

The venue was designed to hold 600 people (less than half the capacity of the National Concert Hall) but 700 people crammed in. Ladies had been asked not to wear hoops in their dresses and gentlemen were asked not to bring their swords to help squeeze in the extra hundred. The concert raised the huge sum of £400 and Messiah was an immediate hit in Ireland.

It wasn’t the same story when Messiah was first performed in England the following year. It failed again in England when performed in 1745 but after some rewriting Handel put it on again in 1749 and it proved an enormous success. It has remained popular ever since. But it is still exceptionally popular in Dublin. There are umpteen performances of Messiah at this time of year, and the one I attended last night was one of three in the same week at the same venue, all more-or-less sold out. The Dubliners I chatted to in the bar before the concert were extremely proud that their city is so strongly associated with this remarkable work.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me. Some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, well over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young.

Last night’s performance was by Our Lady’s Choral Society with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Soloists were Sarah Brady (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Andrew Gavin (tenor) and Padraic Rowan (bass), the latter really coming into his own in the second half with a wonderfully woody sonority to his voice, especially in No. 40:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Topical, or what?

Our Lady’s Choral Society is an amateur outfit and, while it might not sound as slick and polished as some professional choirs, there was an honesty about its performance last night that I found very engaging. It actually sounded like people singing, which professional choirs sometimes do not. The orchestra played very well too, and weren’t forced to use the dreaded `period instruments’. There was a harpsichord, but fortunately it was barely audible. Anyway, I enjoyed the concert very much and so did the packed house. I couldn’t stay for all the applause as I had dash off to get the last train back to Maynooth, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the music.

Incidentally, among the bass section of Our Lady’s Choral Society last night was my colleague Brian Dolan. On Monday next I’m going to another Concert at the National Concert Hall, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Among the choir for that performance is another of my colleagues, Jonivar Skullerud. Obviously, choral singing is the in-thing for theoretical physicists in this part of the world!

Advertisements

Messiah

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 10, 2017 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah  at St David’s Hall  is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas work . Messiah actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) about this time last year but I relished the chance to hear it again last night.

As it turned out, the pairing of Cardiff Polyphonic Choir with baroque orchestra Réjouissance produced a very different performance from last year. The choir, numbering about sixty members, was in fine voice and the much smaller orchestra meant that the chorus really dominated the show.

Generally speaking I’m not a fan of period instrument performances. I can see the virtue of having a lighter instrumental touch in this case, and don’t have a problem with using forces of similar scale to those Handel would have used (e.g. two oboes, two cellos, one double bass, etc). I do not however understand why musicians insist on using outdated instruments. This is particularly true for the trumpets. Nobody will ever convince me that a baroque trumpet isn’t an inferior version of the modern instrument. All credit to the players for doing the best they could, but I really don’t see the point.

Anyway, that rant aside, I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the lovely singing by all four soloists and the choir, who were outstanding.
Now, I wonder where I’ll hear Messiah  next year?

The Trumpet Shall Sound

Posted in History with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2016 by telescoper

Following on from yesterday’s post about Handel’s Messiah I thought I’d include this very nice performance of The Trumpet Shall Sound, featuring the excellent bass voice of Alastair Miles with Crispian Steele-Perkins playing the solo trumpet part. One of the reasons for posting it – other than the obvious one (that it’s great) – is that I was thinking about it after Tuesday’s  concert.  The trumpet part at the performance I went to was played (superbly) by Dean Wright on a modern (valved) trumpet, but that wasn’t invented until many years after Handel’s time.

The historical development of the trumpet is a fascinating story but the most interesting technical developments actually happened long after Handel wrote Messiah (which was in 1741).  The keyed trumpet – a forerunner of the modern valved variety – wasn’t invented until the late 18th Century. In fact Joseph Haydn wrote his Trumpet Concerto specifically to demonstrate the capabilities of this instrument; that piece wasn’t first performed until 1800. The modern valved trumpet didn’t begin to appear until about 1818. Before that orchestras used the natural trumpet, which has no valves or other means of controlling the flow of air through the instrument and is therefore only really capable of playing harmonics (rather like a bugle).  Other notes can be generated, but only with some difficulty, using the lip. This kind trumpet is the sort of instrument that would have been played in Handel’s time. The so-called baroque trumpet  is actually a 20th century invention created for musicians who want the “period sound” of  a natural trumpet but with the additional flexibility that comes from having “vents” in the tube that can be covered with the fingers. This is the kind of instrument that Crispian Steele-Perkins is playing in the video. It is valveless but has two finger holes which the trumpeter can close and open with the thumb and little finger of the right hand for fine pitch control.

 

 

Handel’s Messiah

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2016 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah at St David’s Hall is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up being so strongly associated with this time of year. Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. It’s actually been far too long – six years in fact – since I last went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) so  I relished the chance to hear it again.

Messiah is the most frequently performed choral work in the entire repertoire, and so much has been said and written about it already that I’m not going to say much about here, except for one thing  that struck me about it last night that I hadn’t thought about before which makes it quite an unusual work: unlike most other oratorios I’ve heard, the four vocalists are not associated with specific characters or roles. The reason for that is that the work spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus), and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Last night’s performance involved the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (conducted by Adrian Partington) and the BBC National Chorus of Wales (including Ed’s sister) with soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor) and James Platt (bass). Handel’s original scoring was for a relatively small orchestra and chorus but over the years it has become fashionable to perform it with larger forces. Last night the orchestra was modest in size, but the BBC National Chorus of Wales was more-or-less at full strength. There was a harpsichord.

I felt it took both the orchestra and the chorus a little while to warm up: the strings were a little ragged during the opening Sinfony and, early on,  the large choir seem to lack the sharpness  one might have expected given the very high standards to which they usually perform. Once they got into their stride, however, they were really excellent and Parts II and III (after the interval) were superb throughout. I can see the attraction of using smaller forces for this work, actually, because it’s much easier to bring a smaller choir into a tight focus. One the other hand, the larger choir makes the louder moments (such as the Hallelujah Chorus, for which as usual the audience stood) absolutely thrilling. It’s worth mentioning also that the orchestra expanded a little bit for Parts II and III – no brass or percussion are used in Part I – but trumpets and timpani appeared after the interval. I’d like to pick out the percussionist Patrick King (although to be honest his beard needs a bit more work) and the principal trumpet Dean Wright (whose brilliant solo playing during “The trumpet shall sound”” was absolutely thrilling when juxtaposed with the splendidly deep sonority of James Platt’s bass voice (whose beard is magnificent). I also enjoyed the crystal clarity and wonderful agility of soprano Soraya Mafi, especially on “I know that my redeemer liveth“.

All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable evening at St David’s Hall, which was so busy it seemed to take an age to get out at the end of the performance! The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19th December at 7.30, so you can listen to it yourself and make your own mind up whether my comments above are fair.

Well, that will be the last of my concert-going for 2016 so I’d just like to thank all the musicians and singers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since I returned to Cardiff for  shining some much-needed light into what has otherwise been a very gloomy year.

 

 

 

R.I.P. Sir Colin Davis

Posted in Music with tags , , , on April 15, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday (Sunday 14th April), the conductor Sir Colin Davis died at the age of 85. This is very sad news indeed. I won’t event attempt to write a comprehensive obituary piece here. Many others have already done this much more knowledgeably than I could ever do. You can also get an idea of the affection in which he was held by looking at the condolence page at the website of the London Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra with which he was associated for over fifty years.

What I will do is pay a small tribute in my own way by posting this sprightly and engaging version of For unto us a child is born from Handel’s Messiah which shows him in action, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (at the Barbican in London) with a very characteristic combination of authority and obvious enjoyment.

Farewell, Sir Colin Davis. You will be greatly missed.

Messiah

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , on December 12, 2010 by telescoper

Just back from St David’s Hall, Cardiff, where I’ve been listening to a performance of Handel‘s great oratorio Messiah by the Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus of Welsh National Opera under the baton of Conductor Lothar Koenigs. I haven’t got time to write much (as I’m famished), but I enjoyed the concert so much I wanted to write something before the buzz disappeared.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, almost 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I haven’t seen Messiah live for a very long time, and tonight was like meeting an old friend after a long absence, and discovering that he’s just like you remembered him all those years ago.

Setting aside the wistful reminiscences it brought to mind, tonight’s performance was in any case exceptional. The Orchestra of WNO was on top form, and Lothar Koenigs directed them with great skill and vision. The tempo might have been a bit brisk in places for some tastes – or so I was told in the bar at the interval – but I thought the pace was excellent. Soprano Laura Mitchell and tenor Robin Tritschler both sang with crystal clarity, and bass baritone Darren Jeffrey was in fine voice too. Mezzo Patricia Bardon seemed to struggle a little bit to assert herself; her chest tones have a slightly woolly sound which at times got lost in the undergrowth of the orchestra’s string section, but that was only a problem in a few places.

The centerpiece of the performance, however, was a magnificent display by the WNO chorus. They were kept under a pretty tight rein for most of the time by Chorus Master Stephen Harris, who had them holding back enough in reserve that when they unleashed the full fortissimo the dramatic effect was truly thrilling. Little surprise that they got such warm applause at the end; I thought they were magnificent.

The one thing I wasn’t sure about before the concert started was whether and to what extent the folk at St David’s Hall would observe the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus. I’ve never been sure how widespread this practice was; it was definitely accepted (and indeed expected) way back when in the City Hall, Newcastle, but I fear many in the rest of the UK think of us Geordies as uncivilised rabble and for all I knew the posher parts of England might have abandoned this quaint practice decades ago.

Cardiff is actually a bit like Newcastle in some ways, but the tradition of music making is much stronger here in Wales. On the other hand -as one of my former colleagues from London days warned me when he heard I’d decided to move here – Cardiff is also a bit old-fashioned. I know what he meant, and I think he was right, but I don’t think it’s at all the worse for being so.

Anyway, I was delighted that, when the time came for the Hallelujah Chorus, the entire audience rose as one to its feet to hear a stunning rendition of this most majestic piece of music. It was King George II’s decision to stand in acknowledgement of Handel’s genius that initiated this ritual, and there’s a very special feeling knowing that you’re celebrating something that’s been celebrated the same way for over 250 years and is still something that’s completely exhilirating to listen to.


Share/Bookmark

For unto us a child is born

Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 21, 2009 by telescoper

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year you will now that 2009 is the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frideric Handel, the great composer who was born in what is now Germany but who moved to London in 1712 and became an adopted Englishman, taking up Britisch citizenship in 1727. BBC Radio 3 has been celebrating all year, and I’ve heard lots of Handel’s prolific output for the first time thanks to them. I am a bit ashamed that I have put any Handel on here so far. I certainly don’t mean to imply that I don’t like his music – far from it, in fact – he’s so good that I can even put up with the harpsichords. Sometimes. I guess it’s just that I never got around to it and wasn’t sure what to pick.

Anyway, it’s time to correct this error of omission. This is an appropriate time of year, in fact. Like many brought up in England (or Wales), one of the essential rituals of Christmas time is listening to Messiah. This is a little strange because it was originally intended to be performed at Easter. Another strange tradition is that everyone (orchestra, choir and audience) stands during the famous Hallelujah Chorus. Legend has it that this is because King George II stood when he heard it and, following Royal protocol, everyone else had to stand too. For some reason, over two hundred years later it still happens. It’s just one of those things that stuck.

However, after much thought, I decided not to use the Hallelujah Chorus here, but not because I don’t like it. It’s a thrilling piece and full of nostalgia for me too. The reason is that for many people it’s all they ever hear, and there’s a lot more to Messiah than that. So I’ve gone for another piece, which suits the season especially well and also exemplifies Handel’s gift for vocal and orchestral writing. This sprightly and engaging version was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

My compliments of the season!