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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Handel, Messiah, Edward Polochik, Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

A new recording of the Messiah seems like a potential occasion to me. Not that I am in the habit of covering all of them. It is not my central concern. Yet when one comes along that seems interesting and it can be done I generally open up to the chance. So today we have a version with Edward Polochick conducting from the harpsichord, with soloists, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphony Chorale (Naxos 8.57379899).

The Messiah has been central Christmas listening fare for me since the year I was in 7th or 8th grade I think and my high school choir directed by Mr. Azzolina ambitiously performed sections of the Messiah  for their Christmas Concert. By then I had been listening heavily to Bach's St. Matthew Passion so I got how it fit in with that. I ended up loving the music, then found my dad's Readers Digest LP of excerpts we had all ignored.

Eventually my mom got strongly into it too and after that every year for a bunch of years we went with my dad in tow to hear the Masterworks Chorus do the complete version in Carnegie Hall around the holiday season. I found a more or less complete version on LPs, by Frederick Jackson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. That found itself on my record player every Christmas Eve for many later years. With a drink or two it was the benchmark for me, albeit a Romantic treatment with a pretty large orchestra and chorus (some Amazon reviewer says too many sopranos, but that too many was what I was used to hearing so what me worry?). I reveled in it. That balance and the passion of the performance was what the Messiah was to me, though the Masterworks Chorus versions reminded me too that a smaller orchestra and chorus was really the proper way to do it.

Time moves on always and I still have those LPs and still very much enjoy hearing that version. Then as a reviewer I have gotten the chance to hear other versions, though my mom's LP version was in my head too. And I've heard numerous and various other conflagrations do versions live and gotten a better overall picture of the latitude and such. But every new version I hear perforce gets gauged against Jackson's. In life listenings that is how it must be. You know what you know. How could you not?

So naturally this new Polochick version gets measured against all the other versions I have heard, including Jackson's. At first some of it seemed slightly shocking. The soloists are first-rate, yet in the interest of period concerns they are afforded a latitude in terms of embellishments, adornments, and sometimes plain old different notes than those that are written, not in some radical fashion, but as occasional landings and way-stations back to what is written. And it threw me initially. But then with subsequent listens I got used to it and find it interesting now, for of course I keep the original score template in my head.

To backtrack for a minute, suffice to say that the Messiah fully deserves its place as the most well-known and greatly appreciated Oratorio of its day. It is a miracle in musical terms, incredibly alive and lyric and belies the fact that Handel managed to put it all together in a few week's time. It is a kind of inside musical fleshing out of the affect felt in the day and beyond about the birth, life and death of the Messiah. It was designed of course for believers. Yet it transcends that so that anyone might love this music, regardless of upbringing.  And the music cuts to the quick in incredibly beautiful counterpoint, song-like lyricality and brilliantly inventive through-composing, with unforgettable writing to move all who seriously come to know it in their lives. There is the pathos of "He was Despised," the joy of "Unto Us a Child is Born," the eerie trumpetissimo mystery of "The Trumpet Shall Sound," and the fury of "Thou Shalt Break Them." Nothing is quite like it for the scope of its beauty and moodiness.  So over the years I never tire of it, nor should anyone who gets captivated initially. It is so much a part of the foundations of my musical experience now that I feel my life passing through me as I hear it again after nearly a lifetime of listens.

And so a new version if well done gives you insights into the form. The main thing that stands out in this version is the ability to sometime tread a little lightly (in masses of sound and sometimes in dynamics) to emphasize sometimes the bouncing of the parts sounding together, to re-articulate the phrasings to bring out the form-flow all the better. So "Unto Us A Child is Born" seems at first less impactful because not as hard hitting? But then you hear again and you see and feel the emphasis. So "We Like Sheep" rocks us with super-articulation. I feel like a sheep in ways I never have before! And so for example the "angry" part of the work, from "He Trusted in God" through "Thou Shalt Break Them" (in other words  just before the first peak of  "Hallelujah") at times proceeds with a joyous tempestuous that I do not think I have heard like this before. The tempos can be rapid, but then the whole ensemble notably articulates each phrase with a clarity and emphasis that is beautiful to hear. And very rocking!

And perhaps we get what we get so nicely here because the forces in the end are period-small and so more responsive perhaps than might be the case with a Romantic-sized gathering? I believe so. What counts though is the sensibility we hear in this performance. It is singular.

It is a version not entirely perfect in some huge overarching way (imperfect, that is, in terms of how I am used to hearing parts, so  the pastoral interlude is not quite as moving as other versions I am used to). Yet then one turns to this recording with a feeling of refreshed re-hearing, with a new life to the music that one might need by now. And if this was one's first Messiah to listen to without a lot of reference to others it would be alright, too. Because it has all the music there, surely, and this version would be one to compare others with later? And in the course of it  the "Hallelujah" and "Amen" parts hit very much home, so. We get the end in a big way.

My mother, who so dearly loved this music, would be smiling now. Maybe she is? I cannot know. She would had loved it though. So musical she was.

In the end then I do think this one has a great deal to offer it and I do recommend you hear it. If you are a seasoned seasonality with this work, all the better. But even if not it will rock you! Hear this.


  1. As a lifelong 'Messiah' fan, I very much agree with most of your review, and I too seek out performances on disk and also in the concert hall, there being no shortage of live renditions here in England. We like to celebrate the musical genius of our adopted son. Mr Polochik's version is certainly out of the ordinary; indeed, it shocks at times. I accept that many undotted notes found in Handel, and Baroque in general, are nowadays interpreted as dotted — as a result of scholarship, apparently — but would nevertheless be interested to hear the conductor explain (I might say, defend) his eccentricities. To give an example: he takes great liberties with 'Surely he Hath Borne...', racing through at breakneck speed, and with some really eccentric note lengths not found in the score — I looked. Baroque scores famously lack intimate detail regarding tempi as they relied on contemporary conventions, but we pretty much understand now what those were and usually attempt more authentic performances than our grandfathers enjoyed when, often, massive forces were employed to sing a rather unormamented 'Messiah'. I am a boringly predictable RP speaker devoid of regional accent, but even to my ear the insistence on extreme diction here is so 'accurate' that it verges on parody. Yes, new versions can unblock the ears and force the listener to re-evaluate a work whose familiarity may have made it clich├ęd; but, equally, a composer's intention can be lost through an excessively individual interpretation. 'De gustibus non est disputandem', I guess.

    1. Thank you very much for your detailed overview of things you find rather eccentric in this performance of the Messiah. I will not try and respond point-by-point to each of your observations because a) I do not have a copy of the score handy right now and I would have to do a bit of hunting to dig it up, and b) I suspect you have valid reasons for your exceptions. It is a rather controversial reading. I find it interesting for that very reason I suppose. It most certainly got my attention, as it did yours! So thank you for this detailed set of insights. Best, Grego