Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's just that it tends to make me giggle

I'm in the middle of a #MessiahMarathon: listening to as many different versions of Handel's masterpiece as I can comfortably manage during the month of December. I'm holding up fairly well; it's amazing how listenable this music is!

Number 7 was a real eye-opener: the 1959 recording that Sir Thomas Beecham made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. After listening to mainly nimble, light, vibrato-less HIP versions, the slow, frankly Romantic, overblown phrasing of Beecham and the odd excrescences of arranger Eugene Goossens really jump out at one. Goossens isn't afraid to add harps and cymbal crashes. "As rescored by Goossens," said Beecham after it was all done, "Handel's music glowed, boomed and tinkled unprecedentedly." But the whole thing is oddly compelling, and in the end just as musical as Mozart's version (which I love). It's just that it tends to make me giggle.

I happen to be reading producer John Culshaw's Putting the Record Straight, which goes into some detail about this project. Decca and RCA were at the time involved in a distribution partnership, and one of their executives decided that Joan Sutherland, who was at the time turning into a big star, should be added to the cast. Culshaw takes up the story:
"The first crisis occurred within a day or two of the start of Messiah, for Beecham decided he could not abide Sutherland. For her part, she was only too ready to leave; she was inclined to agree with Beecham that Messiah (or, rather, Messiah in the Beecham manner) was unsuitable for her."
So Sutherland was replaced with Jennifer Vyvyan. The soloists, by the way, all have strong voices with strongly-etched dramatic shading, and Beecham gives them plenty of room to emote. Even back in 1959 there were calls to make Messiah more authentic, so Beecham was going a bit against the grain with pretty much everything he did. The great conductor insisted, though, that Handel would have liked it his way:
"He would have used every damn thing he could get his hands on. Hundreds of people. Thousands of people. But not that Australian woman!"
In the end Beecham had the last laugh. The recording (on three LPs - Beecham was in no hurry) was a big money-maker for RCA at the time, and again when it was released on CD in 1992. Even today there are people who just love this, though I'm afraid we're entering Culture War territory here. From reading some of the comments at Amazon, there are those who think that Historically-Informed Performance is just another part of the War on Christmas. The damn leftist atheist musicologists are after my rum-and-eggnog, my Merry Christmas! Starbucks cup, and all the vibrato in my big orchestras.

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