George Frideric Handel (23.02.1685 – 20.04.1759) was a German-British baroque composer, famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. He is best known for this work, with its famous Hallelujah chorus and for his Music for the Royal Fireworks, HWV351 and his Water Music Suites Nos. 1-3, HWV348-350. However it is well worth exploring a range of his works.
Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. Oratorio means “oratory by music.” Oratorios were originally designed to educate people in significant portions of the Bible. They date back to the time when Bibles were so expensive that few could afford them, and of the few who could, fewer still were sufficiently educated to be able to read them. To overcome these problems the great texts of the Bible were put to music, and people were taught to learn and sing them.
It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs and such performances were hugely popular in Victorian times.
We have selected an outstanding recording of Messiah directed by John Butt on the Linn Records label. Butt has stripped the work back to how it was performed at its first outing in Dublin for this performance by the Dunedin Consort & Players. The entire oratorio is sung by a dozen singers (with all soloists required to participate in the choruses). This approach, in such capable hands, has led to the most natural, revelatory and transparently joyful Messiah to have been recorded.
For those who prefer a large-scale Victorian-style performance we can recommend a 1959 recording of the Huddersfield Choral Society & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent on Classics for Pleasure and available from Presto Classical. A highlights album of that performance is also available.
Those who already own one or more versions of the Messiah might try Sir Andrew Davis’s recent, majestic, must-hear edition of this classic. His new orchestration throws every resource of the modern symphony orchestra at it and certainly divides opinions! We love it, but would not want to own it as our only version. Try streaming it from Spotify and make your own judgement.