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‘A magnificent and beloved masterpiece’ is Helmuth Rilling’s assessment of Handel’s Messiah. Now is a good time to be preparing for a performance of Messiah, since a plethora of December presentations is inevitable these days. Yet originally the work was performed not so much around Christmas as around Easter – the London premiere, for instance, took place on the eve of the Fourth Sunday in Lent in 1743. In Rilling’s handbook, several pages of the Appendix are devoted to the 1743 wordbook. But this wordbook postdated the first performance, which was given in Dublin a year earlier (towards the end of the third week after Easter). Indeed, these Appendices are full of indispensable material relating to the libretto, running order, the nine versions of Messiah that proliferated between 1741 and 1754, and a comparison between ornaments suggested by Rilling himself and by the harpsichordist and director Ton Koopman.

Rilling sets out his stall clearly in the introduction to this thoroughly readable performers’ handbook: background; sources; forces; tempo; dynamics; and articulation. These are the elements that Rilling believes to be indispensable to a thoughtful performance of Messiah, and the order in which he discusses these elements is coherent and pragmatic. Indeed, the considerable strengths of this book hinge on its coherence and pragmatism. This is music to my ears, since it would be easy for a conductor to disappear in a fog of self-congratulatory aesthetic ramblings about Messiah; but Rilling is not that kind of musician, and that is why I have respected his conducting for as long as I’ve been aware of his tireless and sympathetic work. This handbook presents suggestions for rehearsal order, how long to spend on various aspects of the music within each movement, and some exemplary observations on what needs to be worked at in order to present Messiah most effectively. In short, this practical treatise is all about Messiah, and it is only about the author insofar as Rilling is grateful to act as Handel’s musical servant.

Where Rilling’s handbook fails is in its section on memorisation. The explicit ‘analysis’ of various movements – a chunk by chunk blocking of material – seems to encourage the idea of counting beats and/or phrases rather than organically absorbing the flow of the music. And Handel’s unparalleled interplay of cliché and innovation is, regrettably, overlooked. There are also a couple of missing ties at the opening of the fourth system of page 39, which relate to the articulation of the aria ‘Rejoice, greatly’; but these are two tiny slips in an otherwise impeccably produced book – Carus these days unfailingly presents material that is a model of legibility and design. Overall, this is a thoroughly affordable and excellent adjunct for anybody who wishes to get more out of Messiah – be they conductor, singer, or listener. It will be particularly useful to conductors, although it is worth remembering that the Messiah score that Rilling understandably references is the 2009 Carus edition by Ton Koopman and Jan Siemons, not the Watkins Shaw edition to which many British ensembles have been wedded for years. Maybe it’s time to invest in the Carus vocal scores and instrumental parts. If anybody out there wants to buy their choral society a Christmas present …

JEREMY SUMMERLY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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