A rare version of ‘Messiah’ with an A-list conductor

Acclaimed Belgian maestro Renee Jacobs is coming to Athens after a series of successful performances of «The Clemency of Titus» in Paris. Its popularity was not only due to its star-studded cast, but also to the fact that it offered a different and exciting take on Mozart’s last opera – an approach that he will be bringing to the Greek capital. Jacobs will be at the Athens Concert Hall on Thursday and Friday to perform a rare version of Handel’s «Messiah.» Taking nothing for granted, the celebrated conductor has turned to the librettos anew, re-examined the smallest details and decisively worked over the theatrical elements, even in the purely instrumental musical parts. The results of his efforts are amply shown by his prominence on the international music stage. As a child you sang in the choir of Ghent Cathedral and in Athens you will perform Handel’s «Messiah,» a piece inspired by religion. Do you believe the modern audience appreciates the religious element or that it enjoys the music irrespective of it? The members of an audience will certainly ascribe to different dogmas. They may even ascribe to none. Of course, I do not demand that the musicians and choristers with whom I work be believers. But I do believe that the music of «Messiah» was written in a way that expresses the profound pleasure that is born from believing in the Bible’s texts, on which the oratorio is based. The message is a hopeful one and if we play well enough to convey this joy, then we will have served the piece well. How «religious» are Handel’s oratorios? I am thinking of «Saul» and its connection to the political situation in England when it was written. One may argue that «Messiah» is Handel’s most «religious» piece. When he composed it he was not a very young man and did not want to work any further on Italian opera. In his youth he grew up in the Protestant Church of Germany. I do not know how religious he was, but over the years he became increasingly spiritual. When he was writing «Messiah,» he said that he had seen the heavens. Of course, this piece is very different from «Saul,» a dramatic oratorio that tells a story; something of a «Bible opera.» «Saul» too comprises extracts from the Bible, which Charles Jennens (who wrote the text) brought together very successfully. It is like a «Te Deum.» It is that in which we who share the Christian faith must believe. The spiritually I mentioned earlier is even more prominent is his later oratorios, such as «Theodora» and «Jeptha.» Early music You began your career beside the pioneers of the movement for the revival of early music. How distanced are you today from their teachings? People like Gustav Leonhardt are truly pioneers. They were guided by the instrument each played. This was how they would rediscover the sound and technique of the harpsichord, the baroque violin, the viola da gamba. Today, the vocal dimension of baroque music has gained great importance. When I started there were very few specialized singers, and they often did not have the right technique or nice voices. Therefore, composers and pieces were rarely done justice. But they were pioneers. Nowadays there are many, and good, singers, whose repertories include baroque period pieces because they see that they benefit their vocal skills too. Likewise, musicians today are very familiar with historic instruments and possess much better technical skills. The quality of the ensembles is much higher than it was just one generation earlier. Nevertheless, the prevailing preference is for large orchestras, big choirs and generous operatic voices. What do you feel has been the contribution of the movement for historic instruments? As far as your first comment is concerned, it depends on where you are. On the other, of course a piece like «Messiah» is open to many different readings. We are certain that when the oratorio was first performed, in Dublin, Handel used a very small ensemble of musicians. But, as the piece gained popularity, he would change the size and arrangement of the orchestra each time, depending on the circumstances. Therefore, there are many equally «authentic» variations as far as orchestration is concerned. After his death, when the piece became exceptionally popular, concerts grew even more in size: There were concerts with hundreds of musicians and choristers, a practice which became established as a «tradition» over the next decades. In the States, even today, «Messiah» has become something of a tradition itself: Every year, around Christmas, there are several concerts held around the country at which the audience is asked to join in the singing. Even though Handel had envisioned concerts with bigger ensembles than that in Dublin, he never could have imagined this. If you were invited to conduct «Messiah» with a large, contemporary orchestra, would you accept? I would ask to reduce the number of musicians and then I would follow some of the directions followed by Handel himself when he was dealing with a larger ensemble. He had seen to that eventuality. He made it very clear which parts were to be played by all the musicians in the orchestra and which by a small group. It is clear that he did not want the entire orchestra to play the entire piece. If you were to present «Messiah» to a group of children, would you choose an orchestra with contemporary or historic instruments? I would choose historic instruments because I find the sound, for example, of the natural trumpet, a lot more exciting. I would also ask the trumpeter to explain the intricacies of the instrument to them. Which version of «Messiah» will you present in Athens? We will present a piece based on the 1750-51 versions. The main difference with earlier versions lies in the voices. After 1750, Handel used operatic voices and in some concerts he even used four or five soloists. He wanted to use two alto voices, contralto Caterina Galli and castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who some 10 years earlier had performed Orpheus in Gluck’s «Orphee et Euridice.» Therefore, he wrote a series of arias specifically for their voices. This is the version we will present in Athens; it is very rarely heard.