Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Monday, 20 December 2010

Sing along with Old Bach

In the West Riding of Yorkshire where if tha does owt for nowt, do it for thisen (If you ever do anything without cash reward, only do it for yourself) Messiah was big around Christmas. Yet Handel devotes only six airs, choruses and recitatives out of 50-plus to this festival. There is nothing Christmassy about “All they that see him, laugh him to scorn.” and “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?”

For wall-to-wall Christmas we need ace professional, master recycler J. S. Bach and his Christmas Oratorio, cobbled together from six cantatas intended for separate days – New Year’s Day and the Sunday after, among others. It’s amazing it works and yet, in another sense, it isn’t. Bach fed the public demand for new music and though capable of standalone masterpieces (the Goldberg, the Brandenburgs) he didn’t bust his ass every weekend.

To spare his inventive powers he craftily eased his second-hand secular music into sacred works. Christmas Oratorio contains bits from Hercules at the Crossroads, and Strike the Drums, Sound the Trumpets, both non-religious cantatas.

My Bach has a dream cast (Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, King’s College Choir) and they make a fine racket. But it’s the Colin Davies Messiah that is the greater musical event. For one thing the soloists (Heather Harper, Helen Watts, John Wakefield and John Shirley-Quirk) are required to improvise curlicues; for another the choir is far smaller and better throated than was usual at the time of the recording (1966).

BIG QUESTION So, why does an atheist (presently considering a switch to rationalism or humanism, given a declining capacity for intellectual rigour) listen to this God stuff? Well, it’s simply not true the Devil has all the best tunes.