Advent Calendar Day 7: Comfort Ye / Ev’ry Valley – Handel

Well, now, I could hardly have a ‘prepare ye the way of the Lord / make His path straight’ theme and not include Handel, now could I?  I’m pretty sure there is a law about that sort of thing.

The trick with this piece is, of course, that so many people have sung it that it’s really difficult to pick a favourite recording of it.  And I really can’t have Ian Bostridge every year.  Well, I mean, I could, but it seems like cheating…

So this year, I’ve found a rather delightful recording by Kurt Streit.  There are some flaws in the recording (for some reason, it’s squished and compressed, and someone cut a bunch of the accompaniment – why would you DO that?), but there are really none in his performance.  I love the effortlessness with which he sings, and how much joy he brings to the performance – it’s absolutely contagious, and I’d basically follow him anywhere if he sang at me like that.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

PS – OK, I simply cannot mention Handel’s Messiah without drawing your attention to this completely bonkers production, directed by Claus Guth.  It’s impeccably sung, but the staging is bizarre and includes interpretive dance, a sign language interpreter, and significantly more seductive intent than one usually finds in either ‘He Shall Feed his Flock’ or ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet’.  (And yes, it goes precisely where you think it does in the latter case.)

If you have a couple of hours to spare and have a taste for high-quality Baroque music made completely bizarre, I highly recommend this to your attention.


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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Advent Calendar Day 15 – Ev’ry Valley (Handel)

You knew I’d sneak some Ian Bostridge in here somewhere, right? And what could be better than a little more Messiah?

The text of this piece is read at every Advent Carol service I’ve been to – it’s another prepare ye the way of the Lord text (and now I have the Godspell version in my head), though I think it’s actually from Isaiah and not from the New Testament at all.

Look, in all honesty, I feel silly talking about the significance of this piece of music here – it really is, I think, a piece that needs no introduction, except, perhaps, to say that it is one of those pieces of music that really makes Advent for me, and is in my head during most of December. Indeed, I believe it was the inspiration for last year’s Advent Calendar, because we missed out on hearing it at last year’s service. And then my friend Lea pointed me at this recording by Ian Bostridge, and I loved it, and thus my first big opera crush was born. He truly has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard. I hope you love this recording as much as I do.

(NB: You need to listen to both parts of it together – they are part of the same piece, but some obnoxious person has put an ad at the start of Ev’ry Valley, which is a terrible shame. I wish I could find a version where they didn’t, but I can’t.)

Edited December: Alas, Ian Bostridge’s ‘Comfort Ye’ can no longer be found on YouTube.  But his Ev’ry Valley is still magnificent.

Advent Calendar Day 5 – Comfort Ye & Ev’ry Valley (G.F. Handel)

Today’s choice was easy and hard. It’s a piece that John L normally sings at our Advent Service, but tonight he is in country Victoria singing it for others. Which we can’t blame him for, since it’s a full performance of the Messiah, and who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity of all those lovely tenor solos?

Still, to me Advent isn’t Advent without The Record of John and Comfort Ye / Every Valley. It’s a requirement. I’ll be singing The Record of John tonight, so today is clearly the day for some Handel.

The hard part of this was that there were so many recordings on YouTube. Some were very good. Some were dreadful. Some were good, but not quite to my taste. None of them sounded at all like John L, who is the only person I’ve ever heard actually sing this piece of music. And most of them, to be frank, weren’t as good. I hadn’t appreciated how hard a piece it is to sing well until now.

In the end, I couldn’t find a recording I loved, but I did manage to find a classic. Jon Vickers is a heldentenor, which I think means heroic tenor of a Wagnerian type. It isn’t a type of voice I normally like, or one I would associate with Handel. On first listening I found it too heavy, and didn’t listen through to the end of the recitative. This was a mistake – the end is where it catches fire, and, my god, he can actually do all those runs in ‘Every Valley’ in a single breath! Fortunately, after listening to a dozen different recordings, and reading all over the internet about how awesomely well Vickers sings this piece, I decided I’d better listen all the way through and give it a proper try. I listened to the end of the recititative and the beginning of the aria and realised that it really was the only possible version I could use, at least in the absence of John L. I don’t think he would be insulted by this*. Vicker’s voice is full of energy and excitement and life, and it’s more subtle than I would have expected from the start of the recititative, and of course he doesn’t miss a note. The technique, as far as I can judge it (not far, alas) is perfect. It really is a beautiful piece of music and of singing.

Oh, who am I kidding? I didn’t love it at first hearing, but I have fallen for it since. Apparently my secondary theme (after awesome alto lines) in this Advent Calendar is going to be wonderful tenor soloists.

But why am I talking about this music when you could be listening to it? This video comes in two parts, one for the recititative and one for the aria.

* He was.  John does not approve of Vickers at all.