Classics revisited – Christopher Hogwood's recording of Handel's Messiah

Gramophone Fri 10th April 2015

Critics David Vickers and Lindsay Kemp revisit Christopher Hogwood’s classic recording of Handel’s Messiah, now reissued in a limited-edition deluxe edition on Decca

Handel's Messiah remastered (released March 2015)

Handel's Messiah remastered (released March 2015)

David Vickers Nobody in their right mind doubts the seminal importance of Christopher Hogwood’s groundbreaking Messiah. I’d stop short of saying it still ranks as the finest recording of the oratorio ever made because Handel’s most popular masterpiece is blessed with an enormous and frequently excellent discography that grows year upon year. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the alliance of the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, irrevocably revolutionised the way many of us hear and think about Messiah – even for those of us who didn’t listen to Hogwood’s recording until decades later. When it was originally issued on LP I was only five years old, and much too young and uninterested in such things. When I was at university my first historically informed experience of the oratorio was hearing Gardiner’s pick-and-mix version (recorded two years after Hogwood’s). Next, I invested in Pinnock’s more recent star-studded recording, which touched me more profoundly in certain crucial moments. Then, in the late 1990s, I eventually discovered Hogwood’s Messiah: it seemed to blow cobwebs away from my ears and mind, as if I was grasping the most essential qualities of Handel’s oratorio properly for the first time. I was astonished by its vitality, insightfulness, freely flowing pace, and the elegant radicalism of Hogwood’s striving for a historically informed Handelian style. To my mind, it still has that immediacy and freshness today.

Lindsay Kemp How interesting that you should have found it revelatory after hearing those other period-instrument versions! I bought the original LP set when it first came out in the spring of 1980 (I still have it), and for me it was an awakening. I was a student, had just sung Messiah in a stodgy old university choral society performance, and with that blend of ignorance and arrogance students often have, blamed the piece for my lack of enthusiasm. Yet I’d developed a taste for the Vivaldi and Haydn recordings that the AAM and Christ Church had already done for L’Oiseau-Lyre (which Simon Preston had conducted), and, having heard on the radio the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from their Prom performance the previous year, had already noted that shedding a bit of the bombast had done nothing to dampen its uplifting effect. Listening to them in the whole piece now not only revealed what a long way period performance in Britain had come in less than 10 years, but also how fresh, thrilling and light-footed a piece Messiah could be. How natural this new performance style seemed, too! That free-flowing pace you mention came across as wholly unforced. For me, tempo was always one of the things Hogwood really got right about Handel.

DV I wholeheartedly agree! Hogwood’s sense of musical pulse was often spot-on in his eclectic Handel recordings of the ’80s. Some whimsical present-day interpreters superimpose their mercurial impulses audibly on musical pacing, but they would learn a lot from Hogwood’s judicious flowing pace for slow arias and uncanny knack for making quick music lively without being abrasive. Also, the momentum of the joins between movements is often just right – there are no pregnant pauses during which we could imagine tumbleweed blowing across the nave of St Jude’s. Handel’s theatricality emerges without hindrance, and the producer deserves some credit for that too. Like you, I unfairly blamed Handel for why I found long stretches of the oratorio stodgy until some intellectual investment, time and maturity helped me to acquire a more holistic appreciation. The AAM’s revolutionary Messiah seemed akin to a dirt-encrusted fresco being lovingly restored to its fantastic original colours, and it still retains an almost unique facility to grip me from beginning to end. It never has me itching to skip forward to the next popular bit (unlike some perfectly acceptable recordings I could mention). Moreover, the choice of five clean-voiced youthful soloists singing with disciplined (or minimal) vibrato, and applying tastefully stylish ornamentation, is also an enduring virtue of this Messiah.

LK Ah yes, the soloists. There seemed to be a firm idea of what an early music singer was back then, and these five were it. There was criticism of them at the time for being over-cool, but they had clearly been picked for their particular vocal qualities, not as stars who would help sell the record. I loved the way they made themselves part of the music rather than becoming overbearing presences, and there were plenty of corners (often recitatives, interestingly enough) that were really made to count: David Thomas wafting shadowy mystery over ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’, Paul Elliott’s dejection and fragility at ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’, Carolyn Watkinson’s soft matronliness at ‘For behold, a virgin shall conceive’. Judith Nelson was a singer of regal poise, and as for the young Emma Kirkby, the scintillating ‘But who may abide’ remains one of her great moments on record.

DV Kirkby’s righteous fury in the soprano version of ‘But who may abide’ has its ideal counterpart in Judith Nelson’s cathartic sincerity in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. Carolyn Watkinson’s sensitively melodic ‘He was despised’ is a masterclass in the rhetorical power of sublime understatement – Hogwood always knew when Handel’s music was beautiful enough to be allowed to speak for itself. There’s explosive dynamism in David Thomas’s forthright declamation of ‘Why do the nations’, and his articulate ‘The trumpet shall sound’ (in dialogue with Michael Laird’s natural trumpet) doesn’t resort to the kind of stomping bluster to which some impetuous basses resort. I’ve always liked the unforced sweetness of Paul Elliott’s way with ‘Ev’ry valley’, and his lightly madrigalian singing style was a much-needed rejection of the pompous Edwardian bellowers. The tidily precise and limpidly shaped phrasing of the soloists certainly matched the innovatively stylish playing of the AAM – reconstructing exactly the scale and constitution of Handel’s large orchestra, and featuring a host of players who went on to achieve great things in their own right: Catherine Mackintosh, John Holloway, Roy Goodman and Monica Huggett are numbered among the 15 violinists; one of the harpsichordists was William Christie, and organist Simon Preston accompanied his Oxonian choristers.

LK That collegiate choir sound, popular in the 1970s as an alternative to the choral society, has rather passed out of the early music mainstream now that there are so many excellent professional chamber choirs around, but I must say it gives this performance much of its distinctive character, joy and ‘authenticity’. The ‘a’ word really irritated people back then, and I can see why it has passed out of use. This recording is based on surviving parts and accounts from a performance Handel gave in the Foundling Hospital in London in 1754, featuring boys and men from the Chapel Royal, but there is a broader sense in which ‘authentic’ seems an apt word for it. To me it has always had a feeling of ‘rightness’ in its humility and clear-headed appreciation of what this marvellous piece really was before 200 years of ‘tradition’ bloated it, and not many performances have quite recaptured that since. Perhaps following Handel through every one of his 1754 decisions gave Hogwood a feeling of authority; it was another of his ‘anti-maestro’ strengths in the early days that he was absolutely prepared to execute what his studies told him was original performance practice, and then worry about how it sounded afterwards. Not everything worked (I still find it hard to live with ‘incorrupt-ib-le’ and that violent shortening of ‘Why do the nations’), but many of the results turned out to make strong musical sense. This recording is not only one of the shining lights of ‘historically informed performance’, forcing us to rethink what we thought we knew and strewing new ideas in our path; it is also remains one of the most deeply convincing Messiahs we have.

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