Hearing 'The Messiah' -- as Handel wanted it to sound

The authenticity movement has made tremendous strides in the past decade. And nowhere is the progress more appreciable than in what has happened to the annual tradition of Handel's ''The Messiah'' in performance.

It used to be, and not too long ago, that one would go to hear a chorus of hundreds, four operatic soloists, and a large orchestra pour their collective hearts out. In the last decade, ''small'' and ''fast'' performances have begun to give audiences a hint that the Handel performances we had all been taking for granted bore little resemblance to what Handel heard when he put notes to paper.

Now it is not uncommon to find a chorus of 20 or 30 (including soloists) and a tiny orchestra doing what hundreds used to, even in large halls. Thomas Dunn and his Handel & Haydn Society do just this to sell-out business in Boston's Symphony Hall every year. Richard Westenberg and his Musica Sacra fill Avery Fisher and Carnegie Halls annually with only a slightly larger ensemble. And tonight in Avery Fisher Hall, The National Chorale Council presents a ''Messiah Sing-In'' where the audience is the chorus - one in a series of holiday-timed performances of the work around the country.

We are fortunate to be able to document this progress on recordings - over 18 stereo performances are currently listed in the Schwann catalog. Among them, a two-record set of excerpts from the outrageous but spirited Sir Thomas Beecham performance of the Sir Eugene Goossens orchestration, boasting full orchestra (with cymbals and triangle) and mighty soloists such as heldentenor Jon Vickers (RCA CRL2 - 0192).

At the other extreme we have the Handel & Haydn Society presentation under the direction of Mr. Dunn, a remarkable achievement. It communicates grace, spirit, reverence with style and simplicity. Not one of the soloists is a vocal superstar, yet each does as well, interpretively, as more celebrated counterparts. A vivid sense of what an intimate ''Messiah'' should be is handsomely captured (Sine Qua Non Superba 2015).

As the Handel & Hayden performances are a Boston tradition, so now are the Musica Sacra performances of the work in New York under Mr. Westenberg's direction. Curiously, this year's performance lacked a blend of beauty and verbal commitment. Chorus and orchestra performed admirably, but without a certain looked-for touch of magic. The soloists were rather bland and - in the case of soprano Marvis Martin - less than ideal despite a pretty timbre. Rene Jacobs is a musicianly male alto, but the voice was colorless; Rockwell Blake's timbre proved unattractive, and Mr. Cheek's bass rather small for the hall.

cl11 However, the new Musica Sacra performance on RCA (ARC3 - 4352) is a different story. The digital recording features Judith Blegen, Katherine Ciesinski, John Aler, and John Cheek. Mr. Westenberg's is a slightly larger-scaled performance than Mr. Dunn's, and the singers are smoother, with the exception of the gruff Mr. Cheek. Soloists and chorus project words and mood with sensitivity. It is as handsomely recorded a ''Messiah'' as one is apt to find - a smooth, mellifluous presentation through and through.

cl11 The collector can inspect the Mozart orchestration - almost a total overhaul - on DG ARCHIV (ARC 2710 016 - on three records), sung in German, with Edith Mathis, Birgit Finnila, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, and Charles Mackerras conducting chorus and orchestra. It's a beautiful piece in its own right, and the Mozart orchestration, once commonly heard, has more than passing validity for large concert halls. The collector can even buy a performance which tries to duplicate the exact sound - including vibratoless singing - of Handel's day. Still another performance offers an all-male performance with the King's College Choir.

At some point a complete overview of ''Messiah'' recordings would be in order , including those of such disparate conductors as Otto Klemperer, Richard Bonynge, Neville Marriner, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Christopher Hogwood, Sir Colin Davis, and Robert Shaw. Meanwhile, let's note that Handel's ''The Messiah'' has survived because it speaks to every passing generation, regardless of current performance conventions. Today, the authenticity movement has not swamped the spirit of the work with a stultifying literalism. Truly ''The Messiah'' speaks in Handelian terms with as much power as once it did in overblown romantic-operatic terms. This is the authenticity movement at its best. San Francisco's better sound

In San Francisco recently, I had a chance to drop by Louise M. Davies Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony.

The hall had opened two years ago to at best questionable reviews. Some critics declared it as big an acoustical fiasco as the original Philharmonic Hall in New York's Lincoln Center. Perhaps that was because Bolt, Beranek, & Newman was the acoustical firm on both projects and the company's relations with the press have been uneven.

Things were clearly wrong at those opening concerts. Rudolf Serkin, the pianist, could not be heard from where I was sitting. Balances varied dramatically from area to area in the hall. Some spots were brilliant; others were muffled. In other words, the hall needed work.

What I heard on my recent trip bore no resemblace to what I remember hearing earlier. The sound is more balanced (there are many more acoustical disks over the orchestra now); a piano can be heard with clarity. Balances between orchestra and keyboard were fine. In fact, throughout the elegant performance of Chopin's First Piano Concerto, soloist Alexis Weissenberg's trademark crystalline passage-work came through with both the strength and then the delicacy that he was clearly conjuring from his instrument.

In Strauss's ''An Alpine Symphony,'' which guest conductor Neemi Jarvi led in its San Francisco Symphony premiere, balances within the orchestra remained fairly good, though it was hard to tell if the brass-heavy sound was due to Jarvi's taste or to the general dullness of the San Francisco Symphony strings in general. The orchestra coped bravely with the Strauss.

Unfortunately, the piece demands a super virtuoso ensemble and a conductor with imagination and a touch of genius to bring this sprawling travelogue memorably to life. Nor did I hear on this occasion much more than a laudable proficiency in the orchestral playing.

But Davies Hall is far better today than it was two seasons ago. Like Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, it will probably never be a great hall, which is a pity, because it is so much tougher to nurture an orchestra in an indifferent-to-merely-adequate hall.

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