Handel’s Messiah continues to be magical

Alexander Prior
Edmonton Journal

When Handel's Messiah, that quintessential music for the Advent season, was first performed in Dublin in 1742, the orchestra consisted of strings, two trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and a portable organ, and there were some 32 in the choir.

These days, performances generally seek authenticity, and are given with Baroque-sized forces similar to those Handel originally wrote for.

But that has not always been the case. As early as 1784, the Messiah began to be played on a huge scale, in a performance in Westminster Cathedral with an orchestra of 250 and a choir of around 275. Mozart got into the act, orchestrating the work for a larger classical orchestra, and the inflation went on.

In 1857, a British performance had an orchestra of 500 and a choir of 2000, and the Americans had caught the bug - a chorus of 300 in New York in 1853, and 600 in Boston in 1865.

Such large forces, involving the instruments of the modern symphony orchestra, may be anathema to purists.

But there is something about the Messiah that responds when it is presented with such a Romantic glow and on such a scale, and it's fair to say that this approach has a tradition of its own that has lasted well into our own times.

One of the more recent large-scale versions was by the British composer Eugene Goossens, who orchestrated it for the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham in 1959.

It was this version that the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's Chief Conductor Alexander Prior decided to present at the Winspear on Friday (Dec. 15), with the Kokopelli and Òran Choirs. The concert is repeated on Saturday (Dec. 16, 7.30 pm), with a highlights concert on Sunday (Dec. 17, 2 pm).

In fact, this was Goossens plus, as in addition to instrumentation that includes considerable wind and brass, a harp, and three percussionists (one of whom plays castanets at one point), organist Jeremy Spurgeon had collaborated with Prior to add an organ part that took full advantage of the powers of the Winspear's Davis concert organ.

Nor, although over two hours in length, was this a complete Messiah, for Part II in particular had been judiciously cut (including, rather regrettably, the soprano aria ‘How beautiful are the feet'). But what a magnificent, at times almost over-the-top, version this is!

Read the rest of the review here