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messiah novello

When any chorister tells you that they’ve sung Handel’s Messiah, what they usually really mean is that they’ve sung what is often called “The Christmas Portion” i.e. Part One (aka Part The First, which sounds cooler, comprising movements 1 to 21), with the Hallelujah Chorus tagged on at the end (movement 44, the last movement of Part Two (aka, surprisingly, Part The Second)). If you use the fat orange brick i.e. the Novello edition, this means you’ve never ventured into the second half of the tome, except for the Hallelujah movement. (The numbers above are from Novello.)

This mostly applies to me too. I’ve sung the Christmas portion only once, many years ago. In the years since, I’ve sung some of the Part One movements again, dipped into a few of the other movements (for example, Since by man came death, Great was the company of the preachers) and also heard yet other movements on recordings (especially the lovely Amen that ends the piece). I’ve also sung a few other things by Handel, including his Israel in Egypt (over one evening at a Summer Sing), and heard other things by him, and whenever I hear him, I wonder if he should replace Bach in my heart as my favourite composer. (Blasphemy, I know. But then my favourite composer changes quite often anyway.)

So I looked forward to the Bach Collegium San Diego’s complete Messiah performance last Sunday with great anticipation. And as I heard it, I wondered why it was that Part One has got all the love (and performances) over all these years. Part One is terrific of course, but Part Two is at least its equal, if not better. My favourites were the alto solo He was despised and rejected of men, the three choral movements that follow, the middle one of which is the especially nice And with his stripes we are healed and the Bass solo Why do the nations so furiously rage together. And Part Three is not to be scoffed at either, especially the duet O death, where is thy sting? and the final chorus, ending with Renaissance-inspired Amen section.

The singing was superlative, with twelve soloists out of a choir of 17. And the orchestra with period instruments and 19 musicians was as light and rhythmic under Ruben Valenzuela’s conducting as Handel would have wanted. The famous trumpet bits too had as much impact as intended by Handel, especially the solo trumpet line above the first “Lord of Lords.” I often think that must be one of the most high pressure jobs for a musician — a very well-known and well-loved piece and a very exposed trumpet line that everyone keeps an ear out for especially. I personally like to hear a little lift before the four descending sixteenths, and I don’t think I heard one, but that would be too minor a quibble even by my standards.

All in all, it was a very fine performance. I think they intend to perform it annually, so I hope to have more opportunities to hear it, and perhaps one of these days I’ll also get to sing it in full.

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