While seasonal columns are not among this writer's favorite occupations, questions from readers regarding repertory appropriate to the approaching Lenten-Passover holidays and the appearance of seemingly made-to-order, appealing recordings of music by Handel (with a little help from the inescapable Mozart), renders the task much more pleasure than chore.
Handel wrote his first sacred oratorio, "La Resurrezione," in 1708, when he was 23, to a commission from a Roman nobleman intent on impressing the music-loving Pope Clement XI.
Its premiere on Easter Sunday of that year was an elaborate affair, with said nobleman decking out his palazzo with a stage purpose-built for the production, featuring a painted backdrop depicting the characters in Handel's oratorio. The large orchestra was directed by the divine Corelli.
The event seems to have been a huge success despite the fact that the Pope--who didn't attend the premiere--was incensed at hearing that a woman had appeared in a sacred oratorio, in the role of Mary Magdalen. She was promptly replaced at the second performance by an alto castrato. There is no record of the Pope's attendance on that occasion either.
"La Resurrezione" is an imaginative, entertaining setting of a libretto, by one Carlo Capece, dealing with the events taking place between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Its central proposition is conveyed via a recitative-and-aria confrontation between a ranting, quasi-comic Lucifer (how Handel loved his villains!) and a proper young Angel, who debate Christ's power to rescue sinners from the torments of hell. There is appropriate commentary from an earthly contingent comprising Mary Magdalen, Mary Cleophas and St. John the Baptist.
The performance preserved here (Harmonia Mundi 90727.28, two CDs) was deservedly the hit of the 1990 Berkeley Festival.
Nicholas McGegan directs his period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra with terrific rhythmic snap and dramatic point, and his vocal soloists are a match for those employed by Christopher Hogwood in his generally less vital Oiseau-Lyre recording of a few years back.
For Harmonia Mundi, Michael George is a delightfully blustery Lucifer, Judith Nelson a touching, radiant Mary Magdalen, Lisa Saffer a sweet-toned if rather wan Angel, Patricia Spence a dignified Mary Cleophas and Jeffrey Thomas the stalwart, vocally agile St. John.
If "Resurrezione" and its florid arias represents a high point of Handel's Italianate youth, "Israel in Egypt," written 30 years later, is close to Handel's peak as an English choral composer.
While "Israel" has neither clearly discernible shape nor continuity, it has a superabundance of inventiveness in its setting of Old Testament passages dealing with the Israelites' bondage and exodus. There are few more stirringly evocative scenes in Baroque--or any--music than those describing the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's army.
Conductor Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Choir and Players (on EMI/Angel 54018, two CDs) may not project the full measure of Handelian power in their well-scrubbed period performance, but they do treat the score with style and skill--and in its presumed entirety, that is, including the usually omitted first part, "The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph."
Parrott's chorus sings with admirable clarity and, considering its small numbers (32) and disdain for vibrato, surprising heft. The vocal solos count for little here--the chorus is everything--thus the employment of such period paragons as Nancy Argenta, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and David Thomas is generous.
Mozart dished up his German-language edition of Handel's "Messiah" in 1789 at the behest of Baron van Swieten, a staunch admirer of Handel (as was Mozart), then little appreciated in Vienna.
Such "editing" was at the time considered a supreme act of respect rather than of desecration. Music that was not contemporary was, it should be recalled, generally considered dead music in the 18th Century.
Mozart's changes are substantial and occur mostly in the arias, where harmonies and tempos are altered and internal cuts made. Despite the arranger's addition of woodwinds, the choruses retain their original shape.
Michel Corboz makes a strong case for the Handel-Mozart "Messiah" (Erato 45479, 2 CDs) as a joint effort of two disparate geniuses rather than a bowdlerization with his clear-eyed, bouncy leadership of the excellent Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne (modern instruments) and a solo quintet featuring characterful contributions from contralto Jard van Nes and bass Marcos Fink.