Handel Messiah (arr. Mozart)

Author: 
Nicholas Anderson

Handel Messiah (arr. Mozart)

  • (Der) Messias

Mozart's arrangement of Handel's Messiah dates from early 1789 and was intended for performance at the private concerts of Baron Gottfried van Swieten in Vienna. Van Swieten was Prefect of the Imperial Library but was also a singularly enlightened musical patron who vigorously promoted the interests of C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of the older composers, van Swieten had developed an especial liking for the music of J. S. Bach and Handel. During the 1780s he organized private concerts, paid for by wealthy sponsors, featuring above all oratorios by Handel and new works by Haydn including the choral version of his Seven Last Words (1796), The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801); in each of the Haydn pieces, furthermore, van Swieten himself was responsible for the text. Messiah was first heard at van Swieten's concerts on March 6th, 1789 when Mozart directed the orchestra in his own arrangement of Handel's masterpiece. In an interesting but unidiomatically translated note Andreas Holschneider makes the important point that Mozart approached Messiah less as a ''composer'' than as an ''interpreter''. Readers encountering Mozart's arrangement for the first time will be struck first and foremost by the full-bodied sound of woodwind and brass in the choruses; but secondly they will be struck by Mozart's evident affection for and sensibility to Handel's muse if momentarily startled by the presence of a horn as opposed to a trumpet in ''The trumpet shall sound''.
This new performance of the Handel/Mozart Messiah is not the first to enter The Classical Catalogue; indeed, there are at least two rival versions there, at present. One of these, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (Archiv), remains for me the strongest all-round version of the piece, though there are some fine solo contributions in a much more recent recording under Michel Corboz (Erato). My problem with Helmuth Rilling, the conductor of the present version, is the problem that seems to me to dog his Bach performances too, and that is a slavish adherence to rather stiff four-square rhythmic patterns. Too much here is unyielding with little in the way of subtlety of phrase or gentle inflexion. I thought I was going to have a big problem with the tenor, Roberto Sacca at the outset; his harsh, and at times strained declamation of ''Comfort ye, comfort ye my people'' struck me as regrettable in its lack of warmth and supplicatory appeal. But he settles down to make a much stronger contribution later on. The remaining soloists are splendid and I was particularly impressed by Cornelia Kallisch; her singing of ''He was despised'' is beautifully controlled and her declamation clear and affecting. How she can be described on the disc as a soprano, however, I do not know; here's a contralto if ever there was, and a fine one, too. I note from her biography that she has been strongly influenced by Anna Reynolds which explains at least my liking for her voice and style. The soprano Donna Brown is more familiar to British audiences both through her concert appearances and in her role as Micaela in Peter Brook's Carmen. Her light-textured voice, sometimes recalling the youthful Ameling, is ideal in this repertory. The bass Alastair Miles is the British member of the team and his contribution is a strong one. His vigorous account of ''Why do the nations so furiously rage together?'', complemented by Mozart's timpani, comes over fluently and with pleasing attention to detail. The choruses are mostly effectively sung by Rilling's Stuttgart Gachinger Kantorei consisting of some 50 or so voices—Mozart is believed to have had no more than 12 singers in his choir—and the orchestral playing is polished and alert.
Apart from some reservations voiced earlier in the review this is a lively performance of Messiah which is certainly worth considering for the solo contributions, above all. And if rhythmic straitjackets do not impede your enjoyment then you will find much else to enjoy as well. The acoustic is a little too reverberant, resulting in a loss of detail here and there. The performance is sung in German, as of course it would have been under Mozart's direction, and full texts are included in the booklet.'

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