Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Handel's Messiah

What is it about Handel’s Messiah that continues to move and thrill us year after year? George Frideric Handel wrote many oratorios in addition to the Messiah, and many of them are often performed. But perhaps no other works of the composer, none of his operas and oratorios, popular as they are in their own right, have achieved the universal appeal of this one single work. Every Christmas, we will find presentations of Handel’s Messiah in many different countries all over the world, performed by ensembles making up of the world’s greatest singers and orchestras to church choirs with piano accompaniment. Years ago, a recording of Handel’s oratorio came out of communist China, an officially atheistic country that continues to persecute Christians, especially Catholics, sung in Mandarin!

In Vancouver, the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah is usually done by one of three major choirs in the city. This year the honour went to the Vancouver Chamber Choir, a professional choir making up of trained and experienced singers, augmented by the Pacifica Singers, and conducted by Jon Washburn. The four soloists - Yulia Van Doren, Laura Pudwell, Colin Balzer and Tyler Duncan – did an outstanding job with the various recitatives and arias. I particular enjoyed the timbre of the two male voices and what they did with their respective solos. Soprano Yulia Van Doren has an extremely beautiful voice, but I feel that the clarity of her diction suffers a bit at the expense of this beautiful sound. All the soloists exuded palpable pleasure in what they did.

As much as the arias and recitatives were beautiful in the Messiah, the various choruses are for me the crown jewels of the work. The two choirs did a magnificent job Saturday evening, singing the music with lightness, agility, and much joy. Jon Washburn did a credible job in keeping all the performing forces together; I do, however, miss the energy that Bernard Labadie brought to the work in a previous performance, as well as his pacing of the music.

Why do audiences continue to flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah?

In attempting to become inclusive, our city, in fact, the western world, thought that one must erase one’s own traditions and customs and beliefs to make room for “the others”. Christianity is being rejected for a wide range of “reasons” by those who come from or brought up in such a tradition. The trend, at least for the last decade, has been to reject anything that has to do with one’s parents, one’s parents’ generation, European-centred or European-originated. This whole discussion of Diversity and Inclusiveness has been taken to mean rejecting out of hand anything western, rather than becoming INclusive – to include one’s own roots and traditions, including religion if religion is part of one’s makeup, while exploring, respecting, and understanding others’ cultures, beliefs, traditions, languages, and religions.

We therefore live in a time when Christianity has been increasingly marginalized from our consciousness as well as from the public square. When I witness the continued popularity of the Messiah, I can only assume, or hope, that there exists within all of us a yearning for the message contained within this magnificent work of art, brought alive by the genius of George Frideric Handel.

Recordings by Arthur Rubinstein

Oh, how I wish I have the extra cash!

SONY Classics is announcing the release of Arthur Rubinstein – the Complete Album Collection. According to the product description on Amazon, this is a collection of 142 CD’s, absolutely everything that the pianist ever recorded. From the earliest recordings the pianist made for HMV in England from 1928 to 1940, to the incredible series of recordings he did for RCA Victor until he retired from the concert stage. This collection will be even more comprehensive than The Arthur Rubinstein Collection, released about a decade ago by BMG Classics, which consisted of only about 80 plus CD’s. The collection includes two Carnegie Hall concerts that Mr. Rubinstein gave in 1961. At risk of sounding like a television infomercial, you also get a DVD of Rubinstein Remembered, a PBS documentary on the great pianist, and a 164-page hardcover book. It can all be yours for a little over $300.

I did not have the good fortune of hearing Mr. Rubinstein in concert, but I do remember the excitement every time a new recording of his came out. To be truthful, I do already own quite a number of the pianist’s recordings on compact discs – part of the aforementioned The Arthur Rubinstein Collection. Listening to those recordings now, I continue to be moved by Mr. Rubinstein’s interpretation and playing. For a discography that is as vast as that of Arthur Rubinstein, there will be many highlights. There are of course the pianists many recordings of the works of Chopin, many of which he recorded more than once. In addition, Mr. Rubinstein made some of the most beautiful recordings of both the concerti and solo works of Johannes Brahms. There are some surprises as well, such as his only recording of George Gershwin’s Second Prelude.

Fortunately for us, Mr. Rubinstein was actively recording at a time when the market was not saturated with dozens or more recordings of the same work. Therefore, there are pieces that the pianist was able to re-record, sometimes three or four times. Listening to the same pieces played at different stages of the pianist’s career afford us a glimpse into his artistic development as well as his insights into many of these musical masterpieces. One thing that I do notice is that the young Mr. Rubinstein played with a great deal more freedom than he did in his later years. If I have one criticism of the later recordings, it is that sometimes he played a shade too carefully.

Mr. Rubinstein was different from many virtuoso of his generation in his devotion to chamber music playing. He has, from his earliest years, played chamber music with some of the greatest string players of the century. In his discography, there are many wonderful performances of sonatas, piano trios, quartets and quintets by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Dvorak, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky. He had a long term relationship with the Guarneri String Quartet, and many concerts and recordings emerged from that friendship.

In an age where the performer often receives more attention than the composer, or even the music, Mr. Rubinstein’s many beautiful recordings remind us of a time when the performer, however great his or her talents, work to serve the music. When he was listening to playbacks of music that he had just recorded, Mr. Rubinstein often said that was a time for him to “take his lesson.” Those who have worked with him, from his fellow performers to recording engineers, often commented upon his complete humility in the face of the composer and the music. Perhaps because of this, we hear a playing that is both simple and direct, and always beautiful.

I might just break open that piggy bank under my bed and see if what is there…