Tonight I listened to the choruses from Handel's Messiah, as performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the chorus of the University of California at Berkeley, and the very same Nicholas McGegan who is going to conduct yours truly (and other members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus) in Messiah next month.
I had to buy the recording because I had recently read Norman Lebrecht's Life and Death of Classical Music, an insider's history of the 20th century classical recording industry, which numbers McGegan's Messiah among the 100 most important classical recordings todate. So I ordered a used copy on the cheap, via Amazon Marketplace, and spent my first free evening filling my ears with it.
I have to hand it to those Berkeley choristers - they're not bad for college kids. At least they rose to the challenge of all the coloratura. On the other hand, and forgive me if I tend to blame the school of "authentic performance practice" for this, I was a little underwhelmed by the dramatic side of the piece. To be sure, I was skipping the solo numbers, which carry a lot of the juice. But I had an uncomfortable sense of having too little asked of my attention. And so I had time to make unhappy observations. For example, I observed that some of the choruses we're cutting from our performance next month - most notably "Their sound is gone out" - are a little light in the way of inspiration. One of the "alternate version" numbers provided with the set, "Break forth into joy," is seriously lacking. The fact that Handel's librettist was disappointed with some of the music doesn't seem so shocking now. I was a little disappointed myself.
On the other hand, there were surprises of the other kind. I thought the Hallelujah chorus on McGegan's recording was exceptional. It broke every cliche about the piece, making it sound fresh and exciting. The end of the Amen also struck me as having been made new, somehow. But there was one movement that I must now add to my list of "things that made me cry." To be precise, it made me feel choked up. My eyes didn't exactly leak. But it was so close. And that moment was the end of "All we like sheep have gone astray," where the playful gambolling of the wayward lambs is suddenly brought to a stand with the awful realization that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."
For a couple of minutes, being lost in sin sounded like a lot of fun. And then, without even a screech of rubber on the road, there is a breathless stillness before the cross. The same sheep that have been aimlessly turning round and round, and merrily baaing and skipping in their lostness, suddenly find themselves faced with the shame and horror of Calvary. It's no wonder they (we) freeze. What can they do but stare in awe as the cost of their amusement is paid by Another?