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The Herald - Arts - - Arts - Keith Bruce

t took Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del three weeks to writeMes­siah and per­for­mances can last three hours (with a suit­ably long in­ter­val). In a lit­tle over three decades it will be three cen­turies old and there is no sign of its pop­u­lar­ity wan­ing.

For rea­sons not en­tirely clear to me, it has be­come as­so­ci­ated with Christ­mas and (in Scot­land es­pe­cially) New Year. As a cel­e­bra­tion of the life of Christ it is equally, if not more, suited to Easter, the sea­son in which it was pre­miered in Dublin, six months af­ter Han­del had dashed it off. None­the­less, the na­tion’s bigMes­si­ahs are on Tues­day. In the Usher Hall at noon the Ed­in­burgh Royal Choral Union and the Cale­do­nian Cham­ber Orches­tra will be con­ducted by John Pryce-Jones, while at 3pm the Royal Scot­tish Na­tional Orches­tra and cho­rus are un­der the ba­ton of Stephen Lay­ton.

Both fix­tures are more than a cen­tury old and are de­scribed as tra­di­tional per­for­mances – which is very dif­fer­ent from “au­then­tic”. For that you had to be in the Queen’s Hall in Ed­in­burgh be­fore Christ­mas to hear the Dunedin Con­sort per­form the orig­i­nal Dublin score un­der the guid­ance of Pro­fes­sor John Butt. We are en­ter­ing con­tro­ver­sial wa­ters here, ones which Han­del him­self did much to muddy.

One of my most trea­sured pos­ses­sions is a leather-bound mono­grammed edi­tion of the score of Han­del’s or­a­to­rio, which be­longed to my fa­ther. Mes­siah was the first piece of classical mu­sic I knew well. I was a reg­u­lar at­ten­der at the Usher Hall con­certs, then on New Year’s Day, from the age of eight. My fa­ther was one of the elite – and even then di­min­ish­ing – corps of first tenors in a choir which then oc­cu­pied the whole of the or­gan stalls be­hind the orches­tra plat­form.

Al­though the in­ter­val chat, when the posher Ed­in­burgh folk sat on the stairs and pro­duced bot­tles of bub­bly and neat salmon sand­wiches from wicker bas­kets, was of the qual­ity of the soloists “the Choral” had en­gaged that year, the fo­cus was re­ally on the cho­rus. For many, it in­cluded a fam­ily mem­ber or friend, and the pow­er­ful sound pro­duced for the fa­mous Hal­lelu­jah cho­rus or the mighty con­clud­ingWor­thy is The Lamb/Amen was the cob­web­dis­pers­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that we all came to en­joy. Re­cent record­ings (no fewer than three ex­cel­lent ones, in­clud­ing one by the Dunedins, were re­leased at the end of this year) all use smaller forces, but you can still hear the majesty of a bigMes­siah on bud­get la­bel Clas­sics for Plea­sure in a 50-year-old record­ing by Sir Mal­colm Sar­gent with the Hud­der­s­field Choral So­ci­ety and the Royal Liver­pool Phil­har­monic.

My dad’s score is a 1951 print­ing of Novello’s 1902 edi­tion, edited by Ebenezer Prout – a name to de­light any eight-year-old. It has a num­ber of al­ter­ations in my fa­ther’s hand, be­cause by the time I was sit­ting with an­other copy of the score on my kilted knees, Prout was not much in favour. The edi­tion be­com­ing stan­dard was that pre­pared by Watkins Shaw, the first mu­si­cal aca­demic to painstak­ingly re­cre­ate the per­form­ing scores that the ever-prag­matic Han­del made for the per­for­mances he him­self su­per­vised. In­stru­men­ta­tion had var­ied greatly, and so­los were rescored for dif­fer­ent voices. Even the li­bretto by the clever, if pompous, Charles Jen­nens was not sacro­sanct.

“Au­then­tic­ity” now is highly spe­cific and each of the new record­ings is based on a dif­fer­ent early ver­sion. If none of th­ese is more true than any other, it is surely equally per­miss­able to value those large-scale pro­duc­tions with the sig­nif­i­cant par­tic­i­pa­tion of ama­teur voices. An up­lift­ing start to 2007 is guar­an­teed.

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