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EXPLORING MUSIC: "A Sock-Bang Display of Sound"

The MHS Review 391 Vol. 11 No.13 1987

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Robert Maxwell Stern


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Frequent readers of these pages have noticed, I am sure, that in the past the recordings put before me for my considera­tion have been, among others, Bach played on the marimba, Grieg on guitars, and a concertina recital. Unfortunately for my alleged noble tastes, I found most of these recordings good bordering on excellent, and in many cases downright enjoyable.

About a week ago I opened my mailbox to discover my MHS package had arrived. I opened the wrapper and found-bless my curmudgeonly soul--The Electronic Messiah! I checked to see if this wasn't something in relation to a new religious cult (the worship of transistors or whatever); but no: Handel's oratorio played by synthetic instrumentation was in my hands. At last a perfectly displeas­ing recording had come my way. Now finally I could revel in acrimonious pleasure, bathe in sweet persiflage, and, best of all, report with the wry humor of Professor Greene!

To prepare for my coup de main, I ac­quired three orchestral scores of Messiah: the (alleged) original, which is a no-frills SATB-type orchestration scored for strings with the occasional addition of two trumpets and two timpani; the Mozart ar­rangement which augments with flute, two clarinets in A, two bassoons, and usual strings; and the Eugene Goossens or­chestration, better known as "The Beecham Messiah," scored for Sir Thomas' sisters and his cousins (whom he reckon­ed up by dozens) and his aunts. Thus arm­ed, I was out to trounce on every digres­sion and indiscretion conducted (or should I say semiconducted) in this performance.

The Sinfonia (Overture) began. I found the tempi agreeable enough, and, check­ing the scores, I noticed that within the ar­rangements great care was taken to satisfy the composer's intentions. Although the synthesized sounds are certainly foreign to me, no attempt was made to change har­monic structures and no electronic razz­matazz was used for "effect." Pity. Next was the chorus, "And the Glory of the Lord." I gasped: here was a chorus of human beings. I really expected a chorale of Star Wars creatures droning away. To add insult, the chorus here, the Elmer Iseler Singers, a Canadian group, is as meticulous in musicianship and enunciation as any fine oratorio society can be. Though the in­strumentation is entirely electronic, the results are not at all sterile or robotine (robotesque?), offering the choral sections phrased as people sing them, not as com­puters notate them.

Most surprising was the evidence of the human element of rubato in the choral music. This is due to the fact that these per­formances were not programmed but rather required human hands on keyboards--the element that contributes best to the success of this recording. Drat. What pleased me most, I am loathe to ad­mit, was the great openness in sound which revealed harmonic textures and voicings (especially in the secondary string parts), details and textures which are least evident in customary performances.

This release contains 11 of the best­known choruses from Messiah plus the Overture and the "Pastoral" Symphony­--rather generous, I'd say. The recording itself, digitally produced, is a sock-bang display of sound. The liner notes urge you to play it at a high volume level, and this can indeed be done (if you've a lease to break, that is). Because of its very low distortion level and minimal exaggerated transient information, speaker damage is not likely to occur.

Sir William Gilbert, in the operetta Princess Ida, put it best: "Oh, don't the days seem lank and long when all goes right and nothing goes wrong? And isn't your life extremely flat when you've nothing whatever to grumble at?"

THE ELECTRONIC MESSIAH Music from the Oratorio by George Frideric Handel pg 67

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