Good Friday: He Was Despised and Rejected (Handel)

I actually sang Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott at this morning’s Good Friday service, and had every intention of posting it here.  But as I was sitting at my desk, writing about last night’s Maundy Thursday service in more detail, Mayhem, who shall henceforth be surnamed The Liturgy Cat, walked across my keyboard and somehow managed to switch on Handel’s Messiah.  This is impressive on two counts; first, I have no idea how she managed to start something playing in iTunes without, apparently, leaving the Firefox browser window, and second, I had no idea I even had a recording of The Messiah on my computer…

Anyway, The Liturgy Cat has spoken, so the Messiah we must have.  And for Good Friday, there can be only one choice.  Actually, that’s not true – there’s quite a bit of Good Friday stuff in The Messiah, but ever since I heard Bejun Mehta sing He Was Despised and Rejected, no other version can ever compete.  I’m afraid it’s spread across two videos, but it’s absolutely worth it to click on video number two, which is where Mehta demonstrates ornamentation so perfect that I and my alto friends can only swoon in envy.

(Did I mention that I was *so* glad to be singing the soprano solos in the Messiah last year?  I’ve heard some really wonderful recordings of all the soprano solos, but I’ve never heard one that was perfect, and that’s what Mehta has done with this.)

Where to start talking about this piece of music, and particularly the way it is sung here?  First, we must acknowledge that Handel really writes beautiful, beautiful arias.  What’s more, he also writes very *singable* arias – while there were definitely occasions where you could tell he really had it in for that tenor, he usually writes music that is much easier to sing than it should be – he gives you the right vowel sounds for the notes your on relative to your voice, his runs make intuitive sense, and, unlike certain other composers, he understands that singers like to breathe occasionally (I’m looking at you, Johann Sebastian!) (to be fair, Bach probably understood this.  He just didn’t care that much.).

Then we have Mehta, and that perfect, perfect voice.  Every note is spot on, in this very pure voice, and his ornaments are effortless and beautiful and I am GREEN WITH ENVY.  Also, I have a major, major crush happening.  But anyway.  He also gets the emotion and feel of both music and lyrics into his voice.  The combination is incredible.  He does every aria in the Messiah beautifully, but I do think this is his best.   Though I do have a soft spot for He Shall Feed His Flock.

And one really can’t post this recording without commenting on the inspired madness that is Claus Guth’s production.  I don’t know what he was thinking when he conceived this version of The Messiah (aside from “What this oratorio really needs is interpretive dance and a sign language interpreter!”), but the result is incredible.  It shouldn’t work for me.  I usually really hate experimental weird arty stuff, but somehow he gets away with it here.  Partly, it’s because all the singing and acting is impeccable.  Partly is because it has this train-wreck fascination to it.  But mostly, it’s because, somehow, over the course of the oratorio, I find myself going from a place of wild laughter to feeling quite wrung-out.  Somehow, while completely changing what the oratorio is about, Guth has managed to retain and even enhance its emotional content, so that watching it is intense and almost exhausting.  It’s brilliant.  And bonkers.  And I still want to know what he was thinking.

But Bejun Mehta is just magic.

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