As usually happens in the lead up to Christmas, people have been asking again for my thoughts on the best recording of Handel’s Messiah. Normally, I'm quick to answer questions like these, but not so with this particular work.
Because Handel’s Messiah is one of those pieces devotees can get really precious about. Growing up, many of us have heard it a particular way, over and over. And so, when we encounter a new performance that veers from the conventional interpretation, we get all up in arms saying, “That’s not how it goes!” Or, “Why did they change that?”
I have expectations and preferences too, and my training and experience as a conductor has only intensified them. Some of my expectations include what tempos the conductor should take, what keys the pieces should be performed in, how fast or slow, should the aria be sung by a man or woman, what parts should be omitted, should any of the arias be truncated, what instrumentation, and on and on. All this to say, until recently, and after a fair bit of digging, I hadn’t been satisfied with any recording.
More on that in a bit...
Over the past several years I have been taking the Clearnote Choir
through many parts of Messiah
, including having soloists sing the recitatives and arias, in hopes that someday soon we’ll have the opportunity to perform the entire work (or, at least a generous portion of it).
Being that we are currently in the Advent season, about a week ago, Curtis Cook, along with other members of Clearnote Church
, gave this musical offering.
I post it here for your edifcation.
First is "For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth" (Isaiah 60:2), followed by "The People That Walked In Darkness" (Isaiah 9:2). I have kept in the Doxology after that so that you can see the flow from Offering to Doxology, which then leads into the Pastoral Prayer.
During my graduate studies, I had the privilege of participating in four performances of Messiah
with the New York Philharmonic while a member of the Westminster Choir
(Here is one of my favorite recordings of the choir
). Since I had a lot of downtime between concerts, I took a Bible and some liner notes with me and wrote into my score all the Biblical references. I began to be amazed at the genius work that had been done in stringing these wonderful texts together (the work of Charles Jennens) into a musical masterpiece (the work of Handel).
"Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You." | Psalm 119:11
God has made music a wonderful aid to treasuring His Word. Through years of performing and listening, I have obtained a deep appreciation for the Messiah primarily because the Scriptures it illuminates have become that much dearer to my heart. The music helps make the text memorable. A lot of my ability to recite these Scriptures can be attributed to this work. For this reason, I believe every family should own a recording of Handel’s Messiah and listen to it until they know it frontwards and backwards—even if classical music isn't normally your thing.
And if I may be so bold, allow me to recommend this
recording. It is absolutely thrilling—capturing the spirit of the text. The soloists, choir, and instrumentalists are all excellent and the interpretation is brilliant. There will never be a recording of Messiah
to suit everyone, but this is the one that comes the closest to how I
think it should go. (If you disagree, I would love to hear your recommendations below in the comments.)
I hope you’ll get yourself a copy and that you’ll find it as instructive as I have.