Conducting Handel

Friday, January 2, 2015

Paul McCreesh gives a conductor's perspective on Handel...


One of the moments I think I became aware that Handel is a great dramatic composer was when Christopher Hogwood’s recording of Messiah came out in 1980 while I was at university: suddenly there seemed a new lightness and energy in the music which was so much more exciting than the slightly heavy-handed way of performing Handel that we’d all been used to. Maybe nowadays we would regard the Academy of Ancient Music’s Messiah as somewhat chaste, certainly clean, and quite English – although I hate using that description pejoratively! But it made a big impact on me because of the litheness and the clarity of the performance – that the music was clearly so much better served by period instruments, and by getting all of the slime out of the performance tradition.

Handel is one of the great composers for whom composition is not necessarily easy. You’ve only got to look at the average Handel autograph, and it’s always scratched out with corrections, has loose leaves, and recitatives crammed into the margins. You look at a written-out Bach autograph and it’s nearly always pristine! It seems to me that with Bach there is this incredible sort of mathematical ability to work things out, but with Handel you can often see the joins in the compositional process. There is sometimes almost a naivety in Handel’s musical material, and yet his real genius is the ability to turn this Baroque lingua franca – the nuts and bolts of musical expression – into something that is emotionally compelling.

I’ve always felt more in love with the oratorios than the operas. I like the operas, and of course I  conduct them, but I’ve always had a greater passion for Handel’s oratorios. Twenty or 30  years ago the most common perception was that, Messiah apart, the oratorios were over-long and rather windy; that they had some good moments, some jolly choruses, and long sections of boredom; and that they benefited from a good nip and tuck! By now the plethora of recordings, many of which are very good, has shown us that the 'top 10' Handel oratorios are every bit as great and as infinitely varied as the nine symphonies of Beethoven. The score of each one is so different, and all tell a different story. Nowadays I hope the differences are becoming much more palpable to us than the generic similarities. There is something of deep value within the librettos, which are often important works of 18th-century political, religious and historical thinking, and of far greater cultural significance than the average opera libretto.

I have great fondness for two wonderful masterpieces: Solomon – full of pageantry, grandeur, eroticism and much fascinating political allegory, as well as three hours of glorious music; and the more typically operatic and epic Saul, which tells a wonderful story with an amazing compelling sweep. But increasingly I  turn back to the two last oratorios, Theodora and Jephtha, which I believe are two of the finest pieces of the entire 18th century. Like Verdi, or Haydn, Handel didn’t write music in his 60s unless he really had something worth saying! 

But I’m always drawn towards music that is challenging on an emotional and intellectual level, not necessarily the showpieces for conductors; that’s why I particularly love Theodora and Jephtha. There is a deep spirituality in those pieces both of its time and for all time. 

I also adore the music Handel wrote during his early period in Italy: Il  trionfo del Tempo e del DisingannoLa Resurrezione, the secular cantatas, and Dixit Dominus – which is a fantastic choral showpiece if you want something off-the-wall and bizarre. We recently performedDixit in the church that it might have been written for in Rome, with a small choir of 20 singers, and it worked fantastically well. It is an extraordinary work, full of aggressive Counter-Reformation fervour, notwithstanding Handel’s Lutheran upbringing.

It’s one of Handel’s most amazing characteristics that he could come into the eternal city as a young man and absorb the Roman musical culture so quickly. These early oratorios use librettos full of the most flowery and obtuse Roman Catholic imagery and yet Handel seems immediately at one with the style; the works are crazy, fiery, wild and Italian to their core and yet uniquely Handelian. 

It’s the same when Handel arrived in London: he quickly started producing music tailor-made to English style and taste such as the Utrecht Te Deum and the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, or the exquisite Acis and Galatea which seems to inhabit the world of Purcell and Dryden. I  always wonder what it would it have been like had Purcell lived to the same age as Handel, and both composers worked in London: a fascinating 'what if'! Perhaps we can imagine that Acis and Galatea is the piece Purcell would have written had he lived till the 1720s.

There is no doubt that Handel’s music moves me while I’m conducting it, but it’s a very different kind of experience to doing an Elgar symphony. It isn’t music in which overtly emotional input from a conductor is particularly appropriate. That’s not to say that I don’t get emotional when I conduct Handel, or kick up a storm in the orchestra when necessary, or indulge in a slow aria, or enjoy encouraging some roaring ceremonial brass. The real challenge for conducting Handel, and what I hope I have some instinct for, is how to do justice to the overall structure of those long pieces. You’ve always got to have an absolute awareness not only how to pace tempi, but how to relate the sequence of movements within an act that might be as long as one and a half hours!

That’s why I get incensed with opera directors who want to cut 'undramatic' arias or take recitatives faster just in order to get them out to the way: Handel wasn’t an idiot, and he knew in spades how to pace a music drama. In fact, you could argue he pretty much wrote the text book on the subject! Directors and conductors can easily fall into the trap of thinking that because Handel sometimes needed to adapt his works to practical circumstances it gives them a historical authority to exercise carte blanche in mangling the structure of the text. We should have a lot more courage to pick one of Handel’s own complete versions and stick with it. 

I also get slightly exasperated by so-called Handelians who can’t deal with the relatively simply issue of continuo practice in Handel. It’s not artistically wrong to use a lush continuo section of 45 players in order to change the scoring in every bar of recitative (neither is it wrong to play Bach on a piano) but I find it difficult to condone how a lot of performers go into 'professor-mode' and claim that their own stylistic quirks or dubious taste are what Handel would have done, especially when a little bit of knowledge and some basic common sense seem comparably rare. 

I’m surprised that our generation continues to get recitative continuo practice into such a mess because once we start doing that we detract from the voice and obscure the clarity of its communication of the text. It is far easier and more effective to use just simple harpsichord chords with a cello bass note than contrive an arsenal of exotic musical special effects changing every few bars! 

After 30 years or more of the early music revival, I despair that we still can’t get some of these things right – especially in the opera house, where Bellini and Donizetti ornaments are often to be heard in Baroque operas. But by far the toughest job for an opera conductor is getting an opera house’s modern-instrument band to play in Baroque style. It is incredibly hard work, and can be hugely rewarding, especially if the orchestra begin to realise what great music Handel is: but it is also fundamentally rather pointless when you’ve got 50 fantastic Baroque musicians sitting unemployed in London or wherever that night.

There are still plenty of Handel works I want to tackle. I’d like to doL’Allegroil Penseroso ed il Moderato – there’s something about the poetry that deeply appeals to me, and I love doing pastoral music. I still love doing the Water Music and the Fireworks Music. If you get up in the morning and you feel depressed – which has been known of conductors – and you play the Overture of the Fireworks Music, you realise that it is the ultimate feel-good music, and it makes you just so happy to be alive. Music is often great at expressing sad emotions, but it is much harder to express real joy and happiness in music. Of course Handel can move us to tears by the sheer beauty and heartfelt emotion of his music, but he’s also a great upbeat composer too! 

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