Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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Andrew Mellor on Handel’s Messiah

Fri 5 Dec 2014

Music critic Andrew Mellor explains why he loves Handel, why the Messiah is such a powerful piece of music an why, at that final ‘Amen’, it feels like Christmas has finally arrived.

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Sir Simon Rattle and the OAE

Mon 28 Jan 2013

Music journalist Andrew Mellor wrote a lovely article a while back about our relationship with Sir Simon Rattle, so we thought it was the perfect time to share it with you, just before we perform with the maestro himself tomorrow night at the Royal Festival Hall…

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Messiah: The best bits

Mon 10 Dec 2012

Music critic Andrew Mellor popped into the office last week and told us about his favourite moments in Messiah and why it’ll ‘grab you by the scruff of the neck’, before our performance of Handel’s festive oratorio tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre.

Here’s what he had to say…

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A Massive Messiah?

Wed 5 Dec 2012

Messiah has long fascinated those musicians who peer into musical history, largely because it healthily challenges most of our preconceived notions of ‘faithfulness to the score’ and ‘authenticity’. What, for example, is the right way to perform an ‘authentic’ Messiah? The way Handel performed it in Dublin or London? After all, there must have been striking differences in content and execution even between these chronologically close performances.

With that proviso, it’s fascinating to examine just how far Handel’s score was massaged after its initial airing. Even during the composer’s lifetime the work started to become popular with large choruses, the accompanying orchestra slowly enlarging so as not to be drowned out. In 1784 a performance was arranged in Westminster Abbey to mark 25 years since Handel’s death with a combined army of over 275 singers and 250 instrumentalists. The latter beat on three timpani and blew down six trombones, twelve horns and twelve trumpets – most of them phantom parts that Handel never wrote.

Five years after that Mozart had a go at ‘retouching’ Messiah, adding parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns. And he couldn’t have claimed he needed more power in the band to balance a large chorus, because the performance in question involved a choir of only twelve!

By 1857 London had grown out of Messiahs involving piddling little orchestras in the 200s, and mounted a performance of the work at the Crystal Palace with an orchestra of 500 and a chorus that weighed in at over 2,000. A decade later those figures were spinning even further out of control, with an impatient George Bernard Shaw begging, prophetically, that a performance in a medium-sized hall be given with ‘a capable chorus of twenty singers’ so that he could ‘hear the work properly just once’ before he died. A century on, however, the supersize Messiah wasn’t extinct. Malcolm Sargent’s 1959 EMI recording of the work from Liverpool sounds magnificent with symphonic strings and warming horns, but it was probably a dying breed. These days Messiah is almost universally downsized. Do the benefits of clarity and focus outweigh those of grandeur and mass-involvement? Now there’s a subject for vigorous debate.

We’ll be performing Handel’s grand oratorio at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 December (sorry, we can’t quite fit 2000 singers into the hall…)

And thanks to Andrew Mellor for this great article.

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