‘Messiah,’ On Grand Scale, Unfolds As Worthy Spectacle


The National Symphony Orchestra decorates for holiday performances including Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ (Kennedy Center)

By John W. Lambert

Had your fill of  A Christmas Carol,  Nutcracker and Messiah – maybe 20 or more winter holidays ago? Well, there are alternatives to “Mix the punch/Drag out the Dickens,” as Tom Lehrer put it.

Sir Eugene Goosens, photograph by Max Dupain, National Portrait Gallery
Goossens penned a souped-up ‘Messiah.’ (National Portrait Gallery)

You may opt for Second City’s take on Scrooge & Company. You could wait for the next time the all-male  Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo  brings out Pamela Pribisco’s choreography of Tchaikovsky’s chestnut. Meanwhile, this year thousands within tolerable commuting distance of Washington, D.C., perhaps sensing that this is a really big deal and a rare opportunity, bought every last ticket for the two remaining performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts of the souped-up version of Handel’s  Messiah  prepared in 1959 by Sir Eugene Goossens for Sir Thomas Beecham. It’s being done there as part of an ongoing annual series of diverse takes on the famous score by the National Symphony Orchestra. It happens to be a reworking that every fan of great oratorios should take in at least once in a lifetime – it’s a bucket-list item for jaded music lovers, for sure.

Conductor Rossen Milanov
Conductor Rossen Milanov

A poorly kept secret is that these things are the big money-makers everywhere – Nutcracker for dance companies, Christmas Carol for theatrical troupes, and Messiah (or at least Part I and the “Hallelujah” Chorus) for many choirs where “the tradition” runs deep. So it’s a good thing that all three are classics well worth attention. These are works of art that should be embedded in the cultural consciousness of all educated souls.

In the case of Messiah, we’re talking about the whole thing, of course, and not just the usual “Christmas Portion” – Part I with the “Hallelujah” Chorus from the end of Part II tacked on for a grand finale. The complete score consists of 53 numbers, and even the generally brisk performances given nowadays make for long concerts. In Washington, a compromise gave us most of the best pieces in a musically satisfying program led by the Bulgarian conductor Rossen Milanov that lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes with a single intermission.

Beecham-Goosens 'Messiah' on disc for RCA Victor
The Beecham/Goossens ‘Messiah,’ from 1959, is available on CD.

The Goossens-Beecham edition contains everything, but Sir Thomas himself set aside eight numbers in an appendix in his 1959 recording. In Washington, Part I was given complete, but ten items were cut from Part II – including some wonderful choruses and the aria “Thou art gone up on high” – and four more numbers were cut from Part III, including the glorious duet “O death, where is thy sting?” One of the results of the trimming was that the music that remained tilted a bit toward the positive, which is not a bad thing during December. (The work was premiered at Easter.)

And the Washington performance? It was very, very good. An elderly gent summed it up nicely on the way out when, with his eyes filled with tears, he said to his companion, “I am glad I lived long enough to hear this version.”

Leah Crocetto (Kristin Hoebermann), Elizabeth DeShong (Larry Lapidus), Russell Thomas (Dario Acosta), Iain Paterson (Maximilian Van London)
Leah Crocetto (K. Hoebermann)
Elizabeth DeShong (L. Lapidus)
Russell Thomas (D. Acosta)
Iain Paterson (M.V. London)

The soloists were Leah Crocetto, Elizabeth DeShong, Russell Thomas, and Iain Paterson in a straightforward SATB lineup. The Choral Arts Society (Scott Tucker, artistic director), about 150 strong, provided the hall-filling vocal splendor. The National Symphony Orchestra musicians numbered 77, or over three times the number used in typical period-style performances of Messiah. (Milanov also presided over the run four years ago when this edition was last given in the capital.)

The operatic soloists were splendid, from a brilliant dramatic soprano to the vocal richness and power of the contralto to the stentorian work of the tenor to the solid anchor of the bass-baritone, whose Wagnerian credentials include Wotan, no less. The chorus was beautifully balanced and nimble, too; despite considerable distance from the conductor to the singers on the back row of the risers and in the loft, there was not the slightest instance of lapsed coordination.

The high brass seemed a bit rattled at the first, but from then on there were no issues in the orchestra that merit complaint. According to program notes, the substantial orchestration included 50 strings (six double basses) plus the following, as listed by the publisher, Meridian Music: three flutes (piccolo), four oboes (English horn), two clarinets (bass clarinet), two bassoons, one contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba; timpani; three percussion; harp and strings. This orchestration is said to work with any choral edition.

The differences were obvious to anyone who’d heard Messiah in other guises. The extra brass, the harp, the triangle and cymbals, the heavy winds – well, the richness of the orchestral accompaniment was manifest at every turn, and yet it worked with the brilliance one might have expected of Beecham. Examples of this abound. Handel started it, of course, using throughout expressive illustration of the texts. But the upgraded version does him one better from the outset, with harp and horns underpinning “Comfort ye,” transforming it into an accompanied recitative such as Verdi might have penned. Triangle and cymbals give emphasis to “For unto us a Child is born,” and tuba provides unanticipated depth in the second part of “All we like sheep.”

Beecham 1927 'Messiah'
Beecham’s 1927 ‘Messiah’

Fans of Beecham, arguably the greatest British conductor of the 20th century, may know he left three recordings of Messiah or parts thereof, the last of which — pictured above — is based on the edition performed in Washington. The first, taken down in 1927, sounds positively Victorian; it’s an echo, at least, of the famous Cecil B. DeMille-like “cast of thousands” Handel extravaganzas of the mid-19th century. The soloists – Dora Labbette, Muriel Brunskill, Nellie Walker, Hubert Eisdell, Harold Williams – and the BBC Choir sing lustily enough. The recording is a curiosity, worth hearing once. (A 1993 Pearl re-release is available.)

Beecham's 1947 Messiah
Beecham’s 1947 ‘Messiah’

The second recording, from 1947, is far more in keeping with contemporary views of how this score should be done. With fine English oratorio singers – Elsie Suddaby, Marjorie Thomas, Heddle Nash, and Trevor Anthony – and with members of two choirs, it’s still a fairly large-scale undertaking, but the pacing will not cause alarm, even among HIP (historically informed performance) enthusiasts; this is the Beecham recording to own, if you’re seeking only one. (Releases on Biddulph  and Classica D’Oro  are available.)

The third recording, now known to have been the Goossens version but at the outset presumed to have been the work of Beecham himself, was made in 1959, with Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers, Giorgio Tozzi, and an unnamed chorus. It’s the only one in “modern” sound, and even after more than 50 years, it still ravishes the ear. NSO patrons may wish to acquire it, if for no other reason than to prove to their friends that they haven’t lost their minds as they recount their impressions, post-concert.

Thomas Beecham (Encyclopedia Brittanica)
Sir Thomas Beecham (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Goossens and Beecham had been colleagues since 1915. Both made some poor choices in life. Alas for Sir Eugene, the worst choice came during his most triumphant years, artistically, when he was working in Australia. Readers may peruse the whole sordid, career-ending tale here. It would appear that Beecham gave Goossens the Messiah project to help him out financially. We know Beecham wanted an edition that would reflect the capabilities of a modern symphony orchestra. Yet he thought some of Goossens’ work was over the top, so he and others tweaked it, even as the recording sessions were underway. (There was also a single concert performance under Beecham’s leadership, in Lucerne.)

The NSO has billed it as Goossens’ version. Only we old-timers persist in tying Beecham to it. The historical record indicates that Leonard Salzedo, Robert Sondheim, Norman del Mar, and Beecham himself were involved in the post-Goossens revisions. Some future doctoral dissertation may be needed to sort it all out. (There’s more information on this issue here.)

Note: I am indebted to Beecham scholars Michael H. Gray, David Patmore, and John Lucas for information used in these background comments.

John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.

Comments are closed.