Advent Calendar Day 3: Ev’ry Valley (Handel)

This aria is pretty much a requirement for the first week of Advent.  For one thing, it’s from Handel’s Messiah, which is compulsory listening at this time of year, at least in my world.  For another, it’s one of the classic texts for the service of nine lessons and carols which we do at Wesley each year.  I always have a hard time in that service keeping still, because almost every text read is something I know music for.  (Actually, with more than a dozen years of church choir singing, I’m getting to be that way in an awful lot of services.  One really does wind up with an extensive knowledge of the King James translation, at least.)

Of course, the question is always which version of this aria to use, because everyone has done one.  I am usually unable to resist Ian Bostridge’s absolutely impeccable version – I love his lightness of touch with the coloratura, and also I have a serious musical crush on him, so there’s that, too.  Or there’s the version by Jon Vickers, which I have been told by wiser heads that I should not like, but I secretly do anyway.

But while I was trolling YouTube, listening to more versions of Ev’ry Valley than any sane person should have to endure, I came across this very cheerful and bouncy version sung by Juan Diego Florez, a Peruvian tenor, known for his bel canto roles, and I found it rather irresistible.  I suspect that a person of true musical refinement (i.e., not me) would prefer a somewhat more sedate pace for this aria, but it’s certainly fun hearing someone go at the coloratura like that and get it right.  Very exciting to listen to – you go, Juan!

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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.

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Handel’s Messiah: Rejoice Greatly!

As anyone who has looked at the front page of this blog recently will know, I’m singing the soprano solos for a Sing Your Own Messiah production in a couple of weeks.  This is the first time I’ve sung a ‘set’ of solos for an oratorio or opera or anything really.  It’s also the first time I will have sung in a production of the Messiah, so I’m pretty excited about it on a lot of levels.

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Advent Calendar Day 8 – For unto us a child is born (Handel)

You can’t have Advent without The Messiah, at least not in Australia. Though, actually, I’ve never managed to sing in a performance of The Messiah, which suggests I’m doing it wrong. Anyway, this was another of the quotes from the Advent Service on Sunday, and since we did this piece in Advent a few years ago, I thought, why not? After all, the lyrics are appropriate, it’s got lots of lovely baroque twiddly bits (I especially like the bit towards the end when the sopranos and altos are singing their coloratura bits in thirds – so much fun!), and it’s a nice cheery contrast to yesterday’s piece. Perfect.

And then I went looking for a performance I liked.

For most of the pieces I want to share in this calendar, the problem is finding any performance at all. Often I can’t – there’s a lovely piece of Gibbons I continually look for recordings of, but so far without success. With The Messiah, of course, the problem is reversed – there are so many performances that it’s hard to choose one, and of course it’s sung so often that you can wade through a lot of truly dreadful performances before finding a good one. I found this one on my fourth attempt, and instantly realised that I had to share it with you, because this is The Messiah like you’ve never seen it before, unless you were an intervarsity chorister with even worse traditions than the choirs I was in at uni.

For this, my friends, is The Messiah – with hand actions (putting the Hand back into Handel…)(that sounds a lot dodgier than I meant it to)! I can honestly say that I don’t understand the hand actions, and indeed spent most of the piece giggling maniacally at them. And then there’s that woman in the middle who looks like she is cooking up something at a chemistry bench. Though, actually, I have no idea what she is really doing. I’m open to suggestions, though. And there appears to be an infant crawling around on one side of the stage, which at least makes some sort of sense.

It’s truly bizarre – and yet the singing itself is extremely good. You can even hear the altos! This is quite rare, in my experience. The performance is by the Schoenberg choir, and as someone who really does not get Schoenberg I can only conclude that they feel it is their Scheonberg duty to make even Handel’s Messiah incomprehensible…

Enjoy! And if you do figure out what the woman in the middle is doing, please tell me.

Edited December 2017: So it turns out that this particular recording is part of an entire Messiah production created by Klaus Guth, who evidently thought that what the Messiah truly needed was a narrative about funerals, suicide, adultery and really dysfunctional families.  Also interpretative dance.  And a sign language interpreter – but only for the instrumental bits.  It is truly bizarre, and it *should not* work, but bizarrely, it does, at least for me, on an emotional level.  It is now required viewing for me every December.  Because, oh yes, I went straight out and bought the DVD as soon as I learned that it existed…  You can watch the entire thing here.  Go on, I dare you.  But be warned – you will never be able to sing ‘How Beautiful Are The Feet’ again without giggling.