St John's, Smith Square, 23 March 2013
I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, sung by Kirsten Flagstad.
Almost nothing like the more intimate performance I review, but a marvellous version nonetheless. From youtube.
Could any venue be better for this work? Handel may have viewed the piece as theatrical, but it is surely his most intensely religious composition, where he achieves an almost overwhelming proselytising effect through means that suit him ideally – namely, upbeat tuneful arias and stirring climaxes, choral in this case.
A church converted to a concert hall is surely his ideal. The small orchestra and choir gave an intimate, generally fast and snappy performance, with weight only when necessary.
It’s an uncanny masterpiece, in several respects, mostly related to Jennings’ text, which is set with such simplicity and genius by Handel that we can assume the text spoke to him as directly as the whole thing now speaks to us.
First, while everyone notices the narrative is episodic, unlike the operas and oratorios based fully upon the Hebrew Bible, it is more idiosyncratic than that – it glosses Christ’s life with almost embarrassing haste, moving from birth to death without mention of his ministry.
It’s as if Christianity, here, is all about the coming of the redeemer, who will judge in fire, both 2000 years ago and presumably forever more, thanks to his resurrection.
Second, while Handel gives definitive voice to Isaiah, the Hebrew Bible is powerfully rewritten as being completed by Christ, as if Messiah were the culmination of the efforts of John and Paul in the Greek Testament.
The high point in the work is the Hallelujah chorus, immediately followed by the sublime ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, music that might not be out of place even in Bach’s incomparable Matthew’s Passion. But this completely subverts the intention of the Hebrew Bible – it quotes Job, who does not believe in a redeeming God, much less Christ; he is referring to a vindicator, who will prove he has been wronged by God.
So if the Messiah is a collection of inspired tunes, and memorable phrases, it is also a near-abstract drama, subverting both Hebrew and Christian traditions yet has somehow become central to the faith of millions of people worldwide.
In short, by avoiding or subverting most of the substantial aspects of the Hebrew and Greek bibles, yet drawing upon them for poetic effects, Messiah promotes an evangelical, feel-good Christianity.
This was a mostly thrilling performance, without major solo stars, but with great commitment. Only William Berger took time to get to grips with his arias, though by the last one he was properly relishing the text.