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Dallas Bach Society revives Handel’s original ‘Messiah’

George Frideric Handel called his most enduringly popular oratorio simply Messiah — not The Messiah. Indeed, given Handel’s multiple revisions of the work, there’s no such thing as THE Messiah.

The Dallas Bach Society’s annual performances have mainly followed Handel’s late versions of the oratorio, as collected and edited by the late English musicologist Watkins Shaw. First published in the 1960s, including alternate versions of some numbers, the Shaw score has become pretty much the go-to modern edition.

This year’s Bach Society concert, on Dec. 22 at the Meyerson Symphony Center, will be different. It will go back to Handel’s original manuscript and copy of the oratorio — a version that was never actually performed. Between composing the work in August and September of 1741, and its first performance in Dublin, on April 13, 1742, Handel made numerous changes. He made many more for performances over the next decade, adapting and even composing anew for different singers.

With artistic director James Richman leading, the Dallas Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra will be joined by soloists Haley Sicking (soprano), Nicholas Garza (alto), Barrett Radziun (tenor) and David Grogan (bass). In another change from past years, the period-instruments orchestra will include a continuo contingent of chamber organ and theorbo (a bass lute) as well as cello and harpsichord.

Bass David Grogan, right, sings with the Dallas Bach Society and artistic director James Richman, on harpsichord, as they perform ‘Messiah,’ by George Frideric Handel, at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Downtown Dallas, on Dec. 19, 2016. (Ben Torres/Special Contributor)((Ben Torres / Special Contributor))

There also will be a Sing-Along Messiah, with soloists and orchestra, on Dec. 23 at Zion Lutheran Church.

“The whole point of doing the first version is that even Handel didn’t seem to have a preferred version,” Richman says. “His original ideas were not enough to prevent him from writing tremendous new music when he had better or more brilliant new singers. The solos change, but the choruses mostly don’t.”

The Bach Society is using a new edition of Handel’s original scores, although it includes parts for oboes and bassoons from a 1743 source. Issued in 2018 by the eminent German music publisher Bärenreiter, it’s the work of the musicologist Malcolm Bruno. Also a recording engineer, Bruno will record the Meyerson performance, with a patch-up session the next day, for a label to be determined.

Today, we usually hear the alto version of “But who may abide … For he is like a refiner’s fire,” with its vocal fireworks. Handel composed this in 1750 for the virtuoso castrato Gaetano Guadagni. (Popular in the baroque period, castrati were adult male singers with high voices preserved by castration in childhood — a practice mercifully ended in the 19th century.)

But the original version was a surprisingly solemn bass aria, in a lilting minuet rhythm, with relatively tame runs for the “fire” music.

We’ll also hear the original version of the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly.” It’s in 12/8 meter, with dancing triplets, versus the more virtuosic but often frantic sounding later version in 4/4 time. “He shall feed his flock” will be done in the shorter original version, for alto alone, but both the soprano “How beautiful are the feet” and the alto-tenor duet “O death, where is thy sting?” will be longer.

The first Dublin performance, with a chorus of about two dozen boys and men from the city’s two cathedral choirs, was given in a new music hall seating barely 700. To accommodate as many people as possible, an advance announcement asked ladies to eschew hooped skirts then popular and the men to leave their swords at home.

Like many of its admirers, Messiah took on weight over the years. Mozart prepared a version including then new clarinets. Victorian performances sometimes included hundreds of singers and big orchestras.

To mark the 1959 bicentenary of Handel’s death, the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham collaborated with conductor and composer Eugene Goossens on an extravagantly expanded orchestration of Messiah, adding four horns, three trombones, tuba, piccolo, contrabassoon, two harps, triangle, cymbals and bass drum. The resulting recording is legendary.

From the 1960s, growing interest in historic performance practices led to new performances and recordings with smaller ensembles, livelier tempos and leaner, more buoyant singing and playing. There are now numerous recordings with baroque instruments.

Of this year’s Bach Society performance Richman says, “A lot of it will sound very much the same. The big differences are in some arias. Hopefully it will just sound more interesting, especially with the added theorbo and organ.”

James Richman conducts members of the Dallas Bach Society as they perform Handel's 'Messiah'...
James Richman conducts members of the Dallas Bach Society as they perform Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021.(Emil Lippe / Special Contributor)

Details

Concert performance at 7 p.m. Dec. 22 at the Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. $15 to $100. Messiah Sing-Along at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23 at Zion Lutheran Church, 6121 E. Lovers Lane. $25 and $50. 214-871-5000, dallasbach.org.

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