Mozart ‘s take on Handel – warmth more than refiner’s fire

Choirs Aotearoa New Zealand Trust presents:


Morag Atchison (soprano) / Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)

Henry Choo (tenor) / James Clayton (bass)

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Orchestra Wellington

Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 2nd June 2013

Being a bit of a “Messiah-buff” I was, I must admit, excited at the prospect of attending this concert, as I had never heard the famed Mozart “arrangement” of the music. I was naturally intrigued as to how it all would sound, and if and to what extent Mozart might have done the equivalent for his time of what Hamilton Harty in the 1920s and Eugene Goosens in the 1950s did with their arrangements of some of Handel’s music.

I prepared myself for all possibilities, anything ranging from either a full-blown makeover, bewildering in its complexity, to a far more subtle, “spot-the-difference” scenario. I deliberately held back from reading-up beforehand on what Mozart had or hadn’t done, thinking the impact of it all would be all the greater for me through having an element of surprise.

Hearing it all for the first time left me with a curious mixture of feelings. The experience actually brought to mind my first-ever encounter with Ravel’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s “Pictures from an exhibition”, particularly as I had by sheer chance become familiar with Musorgsky’s piano solo original long before I heard Ravel’s revamp for full orchestra. As then, I found myself torn anew between admiration, enjoyment, surprise and dismay at what had been done. Here, I certainly admired and enjoyed many a felicitous Mozartean detail, but was equally taken aback at a number of changes I thought quite wrong-headed. Why, I thought, would a composer change something in another composer’s music that worked so well just as it was?

So, I decided to read about the background to what Mozart had done, and it all began to make sense – as well as, incidentally, having a number of parallels with what Ravel did regarding Musorgsky’s work, and why. Both operations had been planned as “rescue jobs”, and each was the brainchild of a third person. In Musorgsky’s and Ravel’s case, the instigator was the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, while Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s work was commissioned by one Gottfried van Swieten, a diplomat, patron of the arts, and at the time the Imperial Librarian and a Minister in the Emperor Joseph II’s government.

Van Swieten, though an enthusiast for Baroque music, thought that Handel’s work needed bringing”up-to-date” for contemporary tastes. Although a mere 48 years separated the premiere of Messiah and Mozart’s arrangement of the work, the musical world had changed almost beyond recognition during that time. The baroque style had gone, and people were thoroughly accustomed to the more textured and varied tonal colours of the classical orchestras. Messiah was actually the second of four commissions Mozart received from Van Swieten relating to Handel’s music, the others being the masque Acis and Galatea, and the cantatas Ode for St.Cecilia’s Day and Alexander’s Feast. Mozart’s brief was to “modernize” the music, which idea makes an interesting variant upon present-day thinking regarding authentic performance practice.

That Mozart’s work was regarded as successful can be gauged by contemporary reports of the premiere of what was known as Der Messias staged by van Swieten in Vienna in March 1789, with Mozart himself conducting the performance. One review stated that Mozart had “exercised the greatest delicacy by touching nothing that transcends the style of his time….the choral sections are left as Handel wrote them and are only amplified cautiously now and again by wind instruments”. Which wasn’t strictly true, as Mozart recast the openings of several of the Part One choruses for the soloists’ voices – and the “cautiously” comment regarding the wind instruments was something of an understatement. There’s a significant amount of wind writing added to the score – clarinets, flutes, and horns, with extra writing for oboes and bassoons, away from simple accompaniment.

The writing for brass was also augmented, with the high trumpet parts shared (more “taken over!”, really) by the french horn, particularly noticeable during the bass aria “The trumpet shall sound”. Trombones (a wonderful sound!) were also very much in evidence, supporting and enriching (often darkening) the lower lines. In all, the effect for me was a Mozartean “fleshing-out” of Handelian muscle and bones, the wind parts through the instruments’ textures and timbres bringing colour and warmth to much of the music. At first these things seemed alien to the relative austerity I was accustomed to hearing, with the effect somewhat fussy – but after a while my ear began to expect a “warming-up” of those textures, and a more varied colour-spectrum along many of the lines. In this way, Mozart was able to shed new and varied light on the old most successfully.

I was far less convinced by the recasting of the chorus openings for solo voices – mercifully, throughout Parts Two and Three, Mozart himself seemed less inclined to press the idea, and left most of the remaining choruses intact, though allowing the soloists to join in. But the magic frisson of some of those quieter original choral beginnings, such as “And he shall purify” and “For unto us” were lost here, and the effect to my ears coarsened by crude interchanges between the soloists and the choir. Unlike with the wind and brass additions, nowhere did I think Mozart improved on Handel’s treatment of his voices, either solo or choral. Incidentally, Mozart used a German translation of the words – but here, we had the original English (odd to think of the work being sung in any other language – maybe that sentiment’s a tad ethnocentric….).

So, there we all were, on the first winter Sunday of the year, gathered in the Town Hall in Wellington (soon to be closed for earthquake-protection strengthening). Though the weather obligingly underlined the change of season, many hardy souls braved wind and rain to make up a creditable attendance. On hand to reward such resolve was the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, attended by members of Orchestra Wellington and four solo singers, the ensemble directed by Tecwyn Evans.

Listening to and thinking about the work and its performance on this occasion was an interesting experience in itself, as I would find myself switching modes, first analyst and then critic, registering by turns what was happening and how it was being performed. Straight away, one registered the grander, darker sound of trombones in the Overture, and the warmer colourings of the winds in various other places. A mixed blessing, as I’ve said – I thought Mozart unduly reduced the stark impact of the aria “He was despised” by adding winds, but his writing of creepily chromatic descents for the instruments in “The people who walked” gave the darkness an almost infernal, Don Giovanni-like aspect. Conversely, the wind parts during the “Pastoral Symphony”, augmented by spit-spot choral singing, caused the music to positively scintillate in places, entirely appropriately.

Though their impact upon the performance was reduced throughout Part One by Mozart’s changes, the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir sang superbly, throughout, coping well with some of the idiosyncrasies of the arrangement (odd accented phrasings in “All we like sheep” at the words “..have-GONE-a-STRAA-aa-AA-aa-AA…” – like someone trying to sing while being vigorously shaken!), but elsewhere displaying agility, strength, ease and wonderful variation of tone. For example, in “Surely He hath borne our griefs” I could feel the physical impact of the men’s singing of the words “bruised for our iniquities” , while a glorious outpouring of tones from the women’s voices at one point during the “Amen” chorus actually gave me goosebumps! I would have liked to have heard those same voices singing the openings of the choruses that Mozart gave to the soloists as well; but there was more than enough left for them to make a rich and indelible mark upon the proceedings.

I thought the soloists were for the most part splendid, each presenting their lines with energy and fullness of tone, and bringing to their utterances a distinctive and readily-communicating character. Though a shade tremulous at the top, soprano Morag Atchison’s voice otherwise enchanted, giving a lovely, committed performance with an engaging sense of great feeling, in the first Part capturing the excitement of the heavenly host’s appearance at “And suddenly…”. Also, she didn’t sentimentalize “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, but gave strength and emphasis to the words and put across the figurations with flair and energy.

Truest-toned of the quartet was mezzo Bianca Andrew, singing as always with the greatest of elegance, even when finding (as mezzos do) the tessitura of both “O Thou that tellest” and “He was despised” simply too low in places for comfort of projection. I’ve mentioned that Mozart’s wind additions seemed to me to blunt the latter aria’s tragic impact somewhat, and, in fact, give the music a human warmth that aligns it more with the world of the Countess from “Figaro”.

I liked tenor Henry Choo’s whole-hearted “Comfort Ye”, his voice also tremulous under pressure on top, but still heroic and bright. He thoroughly enjoyed his “bonus” aria “Rejoice greatly”, and made as good a fist as most singers I’ve heard of the so-o-o awkward “Thou shalt break them”, with its terrifyingly exposed leaps. Alongside him on the platform, fellow-Australian James Clayton put across an arresting, old-style prophet-like  “Thus saith the Lord”, though I found his softer singing seemed to lose some of the voice’s presence, resembling in places a rather-too-disembodied effect.  He brought plenty of energy and bluster to “Why do the nations”, though one of his grandest numbers, “The trumpet shall sound”, was here well-and-truly scuppered by Mozart, who reduced the aria to its opening, removing both the middle section and its da capo repeat.

Very great credit is due to conductor Tecwyn Evans, who entered into and realized the spirit of Mozart’s “rejuvenation” with some insightful and in places exciting direction, getting a committed response from choir and orchestra alike. On a couple of occasions I thought his tempi too quick for words and music to properly cohere (both “O Thou that tellest”, and the soloists-led “His yoke is easy” had what felt for me like a kind of driven, “take no prisoners” aspect). But in general his direction brought out both the older composer’s music-for-the-ages essence and the younger one’s delighted creative response to that same greatness.



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