George Friderick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Messiah (1741)
Dora Labbette (soprano); Muriel Brunskill (contralto); Hubert Eisdell (tenor); Harold Williams (bass)
BBC Choir and Orchestra/ Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. June-July 1927, Central Hall, Westminster.
PRISTINE PACO129 [61:03 + 63:05]

I suppose that it is just the way of the world that a performance which, when given, is at the cutting edge of style will eventually be regarded as the very epitome of the out-of-date. When Beecham gave a performance of Messiah in Queen’s Hall in December 1926 with essentially the same forces as this recording, it was regarded as groundbreaking. The contralto of this recording, Muriel Brunskill, is quoted in Pristine’s booklet as recalling that “His tempi for this work, which are now taken for granted, were revolutionary; he entirely revitalised it, the old slow progress was gone forever”. These performances of 1926 and 1927 were the first to make any attempt to perform Messiah with at least a nod to a style which Handel might have expected. Now, the single fact that he uses the Prout orchestration relegates it to the category of the quaint. This is unfair, and any but the very blindest member of the “authenticity Taliban” should be able to listen to this set and be astonished at its power and sheer life.

Beecham assembled a set of soloists to put into practice his new concept who were comparatively young; Labbette was 29 and Brunskill 28; the men were a little older, with Eisdell at 35 and Williams 34, and all do a splendid job. Dora Labbette first worked with Beecham in the Queen’s Hall performance (she always said that he chose her when he saw her photograph at her agents’ offices). She became Beecham’s long-term lover and the mother of his son Paul Strang until she was abandoned in the most callous way when he fell for the pianist Betty Humby in 1941. The shock of this essentially finished her career. “The stuffing went out of me and I really felt that I didn’t want to sing any more” she told their son, and in 1943, aged only 45, she retired. Hers is a very typically English soprano voice of the period – sweet, light, very little vibrato, rather shallow in tone but very attractive in her somewhat limited repertoire. Labbette’s timbre is quite similar to the sort of soprano that is now thought of as “authentic” in pre-19th century music. Her performance is lovely, with a real tenderness in “He shall feed his flock” and “How beautiful are the feet” and some exquisitely poised high notes. She is not quite so successful in “Rejoice greatly”; Beecham takes this at a very fast tempo, and she can’t quite manage the runs at his speed. “I know that my redeemer liveth” is also a little disappointing, there is not the inwardness I had hoped for and the recording is at its worst in the distortion on the voice.

Muriel Brunskill is a real contralto, not a modern-day mezzo, but do not imagine that this comes with the sort of grinding gear-change into a baritone chest register of the Clara Butt stereotype. She is a sensitive and musical singer with a soft-grained timbre, though she does possess an opulent lower register which gives a wonderfully effective depth in “He shall feed his flock” and, even more so, “He was despised”. Hubert Eisdell is a fine tenor with a positively heroic tone at times – very different from the “authentic” tenor of today. He has an very good top with a resonance which was not always to be found in English tenors of this period. He also has excellent breath control and a florid technique which allows him to negotiate some of the runs with real virtuosity. His enunciation has great clarity, though he has an odd way of shading “o” sounds into “a” – “your God” becomes “yar God” and “thy holy one” “thy holy wan”. The tenor sequence in Part 2 is very touchingly done with real character and even the odd appoggiatura, but the highlight is “Thou shalt break them”. Beecham takes this at a positively frenetic pace, with Eisdell responding heroically and interpolating a top A at his final cadence, after which Beecham whips the orchestra on in a tremendous accelerando to the finishing post. This must have left them open-mouthed in astonishment in 1926, but is absolutely thrilling.

I think the finest of the soloists is Harold Williams, the bass, or more accurately bass-baritone, as his low notes are good but do not have the depth and resonance of his top. He has a truly commanding presence which leaps out of the speakers; his first utterance, “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts”, sets the tone for all that follows. He is great story-teller - listen to “Behold I tell you a mystery” - and is positively operatic in the way that he characterises every word. One of the ways in which he achieves this is in the great freedom with which he treats the rhythm and note values, giving naturalistic speech rhythms to the recitatives. His delivery of these is like that of a great orator. He is also technically first-rate, with excellent runs even at the breakneck tempo at which Beecham takes “Why do the nations?”.

The choral side of things is on a distinctly lower level. I have always thought that the only aspect of musical performance in which the past has nothing to teach us is in choral music. As a member of my local amateur Rochester Choral Society, I can honestly say that we beat the BBC Choir hands down in every respect. They are undoubtedly enthusiastic, but the blend, the tuning, the accuracy of the runs and the actual sound seem absolutely amateur, in the pejorative sense, to ears accustomed to the sound of the professional and semi-professional choirs of today. The tenors are particularly painful, with a strangulated, back-of-the-throat vocal production without any vibrato or resonance making them sound like a choir of Douglas Hurds (for those who remember the Tory cabinet minister of 25 years ago). There is an almost football-terrace crudeness to their delivery at times.

The presiding genius over all this is, of course, Beecham. What will probably be surprising, to a casual modern listener with no real knowledge of old recordings, is how unlike the stereotype of “pre-authentic” performance it is. The feel is not stodgy, it does not plod along with a sanctimonious religiosity, everything doesn’t go at a funereal pace – in fact some of the tempi are far faster than most modern performances. The Prout orchestration will no doubt seem bizarre, though the recorded balance of the orchestra is so string-heavy that the additional wind parts barely register most of the time. The tempi, which seem in most cases simply standard to us, were revolutionary at the time. If we compare Messiah recordings from the 1900 to 1920 period (for example Sydney Coltham’s “Comfort ye” and “Every valley” from about 1920) the difference between what Beecham did and the Victorian tradition is obvious. There are, of course, still some remnants of the old ways, particularly in the chorus numbers. Beecham still includes some of the internal speed variations such as the sudden slowing-down at “That they may offer unto the Lord” in “And he shall purify” and “The kingdom of this earth” in “Hallelujah”, but other choruses such as “He trusted in them” and “Let us break our bonds asunder” are taken at a lick which would have terrified a standard chorus of the time.

Incidentally, one of things about this recording which has perplexed people ever since the set was issued is that the final “Amen” chorus was not recorded. This apparently bizarre omission means that the work ends on the dominant, and for the purposes of Pristine’s transfer, Andrew Rose has interpolated the “Amen” from Beecham’s 1947 recording. In John Lucas’s excellent biography “Thomas Beecham, An Obsession with Music”, he tells us that at the 1926 Queen’s Hall performance, Beecham cut the “Amen” and transposed the “Hallelujah Chorus” to its place as the final number, so presumably this was the reason the “Amen” was not recorded. I wonder if Beecham had intended that the “Hallelujah Chorus” should be the final side of the set; if he did, clearly the people at Columbia either did not realise or chose to ignore his wishes.

A little surprisingly, given that it was hugely popular before the war and used to turn up regularly in junk shops, this set has had very few reissues. In fact I know of only two; an single LP of excerpts which EMI put out in 1977 and a Pearl transfer of the full set in 1990. Part of the reason is that Beecham recorded Messiah a further couple of times. His 1947 set is equally lacking in reissues, partly because it falls into that period when EMI and Victor were jointly commissioning recordings, and now no-one knows exactly who owns the rights to them, so neither company has reissued it since the very flat and subdued LP transfer that EMI put out in 1953. The final stereo set was made in 1959 in an orchestration by Eugene Goossens which has always seemed to me to have a Technicolor crudeness that puts it beyond acceptability, but which has completely overshadowed both previous recordings. The other reason is that the recording poses some serious problems. Even in 1927, Columbia were producing some spectacularly good recordings, but unfortunately this is not among them. There is inherent distortion on a good number of the sides and the orchestral sound is distant and muddy with poor instrumental balance. There is also considerable pitch-drift over many sides and some obvious “knob-twiddling” causes volume fluctuation within chorus numbers, a particularly noticeable example being in “Behold the Lamb of God”. The distortion and volume fluctuations are beyond present techniques of restoration, though a recently-developed software called Capstan has been employed which has completely cured the pitch drift. Mark Obert-Thorn, who transferred the set, has made an excellent job of it. He has tamed the distortion as much as possible and eliminated surface noise to an extent that makes it negligible to my ears. The sound is bright and immediate and the solo voices for the most part come over very well.

Paul Steinson

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