Friday, December 17, 2010


Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times reviews a performance by LA's Master Chorale of the 1789 arrangement of Handel's oratorio made by Mozart:

I don't share classical purists' aversion to arrangements. I think the canon is enhanced by Mahler's string orchestrations of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and Beethoven's "Serioso" string quartets, Rudolf Barshai's orchestrations of Shostakovich quartets, orchestrations of Schubert's art-songs by Reger, Berlioz and others; I even like Schoenberg's symphonization of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor (although I'd never mistake it for a fifth symphony of Brahms).

Yes, the Handel-Mozart "Messiah" is "inauthentic;" but given Handel's history of repeatedly tinkering with the piece, and the baroque practice of freewheeling ornamentation and even improvisation by performers, in which Handel was an active practitioner, letter-of-the-score authenticity is a less important consideration. The original 1741 version of the oratorio was a template, not a finished product. Mozart was an expert finisher.

Practically speaking, Mozart's larger orchestration strikes me as a better balance for large choirs – performances with a Handel-scale chorus of two or three dozen voices are very rare, especially in the U.S.; and Mozart's "Messiah" produces a more room-filling sound in modern concert halls, which are much larger than any space Handel would have used.