Winner Baroque Vocal Album of the Year
Classic FM Gramophone Awards 2007
The Dunedin Consort's Dublin version of Messiah was Linn's fastest selling album of 2006 and was described in many publications as the top choice Messiah for 2006. The recording was given four stars by The Times, The Guardian and BBC Music Magazine, chosen as ‘Album of the Day' on AllMusic.com and selected in The Scotsman's ‘Top Ten classical music moments of 2006'.
This sought-after recording was also a winner at the 2007 Gramophone Awards.
What makes this Messiah so special is that it is the first recording to seriously explore the version and performing forces that Handel used for his legendary Dublin premiere. This unique recording signifies an exciting and historically considered representation of Messiah, which recaptures something of the freshness of the first public performances.
Why the Dublin version?
Choosing to perform Handel's Messiah in the version presented at its very first performances, in Dublin (13 April and 3 June, 1742), does not mean that we are presenting the work in its ‘best' or indeed in its entirely ‘original' form. Handel seems to have composed the oratorio with no specific performers in mind, so he was prepared to adapt it for each production in turn; indeed, around ten versions are discernible in all. He certainly made some revisions in Dublin for those singers who were not of the same calibre as he enjoyed in London, so there has sometimes been a tendency to view this first performing version as critically compromised by supposedly inadequate forces. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from reconstructing the Dublin version (albeit something which cannot be done with total certainty) and, particularly, attempting to use roughly the same size of vocal forces and a similar apportionment of soloists. Some of Handel's cuts made during the preparations for the Dublin performances were clearly designed to enhance the flow of the piece; these were retained in subsequent performances and thus do not reflect the inadequacy of the first performers.
Other changes were positive reactions to the qualities of specific singers available in Dublin. Most significant here was Handel's decision to present one lyrical alto aria in each of the three parts to Mrs Susannah Cibber, sister of Thomas Arne. Cibber was best known as an outstanding actor, but had recently undergone the scandal of an extra-marital affair, the details of which had been described in court in astonishingly unambiguous detail. Her appearance in Dublin marked the beginning of her return to public life at a safe distance from London; although by no means expert as a singer, her performances brought a quality of expression that was clearly outstanding. The aria ‘He shall feed his flock' in Part 1, originally cast for soprano in Bb major, was therefore transposed down to F major to suit Mrs Cibber. The aria from Part 2 (‘He was despised and rejected' - and, as it happened, a particularly prescient text for the singer concerned) was already in the correct range and, in Part 3, Handel transposed the aria ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?' from G minor (soprano) to C minor, thus giving Mrs Cibber the final aria, conventionally reserved for the leading soloist.
The other major change is the replacement of the original version of the aria ‘How beautiful are the feet' (from Romans, as chosen by Charles Jennens, the compiler of the libretto) with a duet for two altos and chorus, setting the text beginning with the same line from Isaiah 52:7-9. Thus the opening musical material is very similar to the original but it thereafter departs entirely, with the chorus section ‘Break forth into joy'. This suggests that Handel was keen to adapt the work for the vocal forces available in Dublin, particularly the men of the two cathedral choirs, who were adept at singing in this ‘verse anthem' style.
While Handel had the services of a professional Italian soprano, Christina Maria Avoglio, the remainder of the soloists were drawn from the two cathedral choirs: two male altos shared out the remaining alto solos (Joseph Ward and William Lamb); the tenor arias and recitatives were taken by James Bailey, and John Mason and John Hill sang the bass solos (Hill apparently taking only ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage together?'). Mason and Lamb were former children of the Chapel Royal in London, and may well thus have encountered Handel before. In true cathedral fashion, all these soloists also formed the core of the chorus, so the work was not only given a broad spectrum of solo vocal colours but also a much more intimate and flexible chorus than many later performances (assuming a distinction between solo and choral forces) would lead us to expect. Another factor to consider is that Handel had used the music that was to constitute five of the Messiah choruses as Italian duets, a year or so before. To Handel, at least, these intimate but also intensely energetic and virtuoso duets would have been in his mind when he wrote and directed the first performances of Messiah.
The challenge then, in this recording, has been to try and recapture something of the freshness of the first public performances of Messiah, imagining what it was like to hear the work for the very first time when many moments must have been quite unexpected. By analysing the lists of adult singers in the two cathedral choirs and subtracting the number who were likely to have been ordained (and thus excluded from secular performances) Donald Burrows has suggested that the original chorus probably consisted of no more than three or four voices to a part. This certainly allows us to capitalise on the existing strengths of the Dunedin Consort, which comprises singers who are equally adept at solo, ensemble and choral singing. We have thus been able to apportion the solo areas in more or less exactly the way Handel did (although we have slightly altered the way in which the two ‘cathedral' altos are employed). We have also kept in mind the virtuoso origins of at least some of the choruses and the level of detail and expression that a smaller group of expert singers might be able to achieve.
The sequence of movements in the Dublin version also brings its own particular pacing: the alto versions of the final arias of Parts 1 and 3 create a more striking contrast between the increased mellow character of each aria and the respective final chorus. With the various cuts and abbreviations made towards the end of Part 2, there is, conversely, rather more momentum from the end of ‘How beautiful are the feet' towards the ‘Hallelujah' chorus. We have also borne in mind the division of each part into ‘scenes', which is provided in the libretto for the London performances of 1743. Handel would, in all likelihood, have paced his oratorios in much the same way as he did for his operas.
The Dublin orchestra, expertly led by Matthew Dubourg, comprised only strings, two trumpets and timpani, although the exact size is unknown. Handel had his own organ transported to Ireland, according to a letter discovered by Burrows, so this was presumably used in the Messiah performances, perhaps by the composer himself (it is mentioned specifically for the new version of ‘How beautiful are the feet'); we assume that the harpsichord was used much of the time too. John Butt
John Butt (conductor), Co-artistic Director
Susan Hamilton (soprano), Co-artistic Director
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass)
Annie Gill (mezzo soprano)
Clare Wilkinson (alto)
Heather Cairncross (alto)
Edward Caswell (bass)
Recorded at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, UK: 1-4 May 2006
Produced and engineered by Philip Hobbs
Post-Production by Julia Thomas at Finesplice Ltd
Project Management: Caroline Dooley
Cover image: The Tribute Money, 1629 (oil on panel)