In my youth, before photograph records had learned to rotate at 33 rpm, Handel's "Messiah" on records was a formidably experience; you needed a wagon to carry a complete recording home from the public library, and if you didn't have an automatic changer you had to get up more than 20 times to turn the record over or put on a new one - nearly 40 times for Sir Malcolm Sargent, whose version was either more complete or a lot slower than Sir Thomas Beecham's; I forget which.
There is no clearer index of how times have changed - in recorded music, at least - than a new package from Advent, a company best known for its high fidelity components but also establishing a solid reputation for its recordings. In this package, the whole "Messiah" - just under 2 1/2 hours of it - is contained on two cassettes that fit into one container almost exactly as big as a king-size cigarette pack. What's more, that thin band of rust bonded to plastic (that's what it is, after all), moving at the impossibly slow speed of 1 7/8 inches per second, sounds incomparably better than Beecham and Sargent out together better, even, than my treasured stereo disc recordings, which have developed little tick and rough spots (in my favorite passages, naturally) from years of use, despite careful handling with high-quality playback equipment.
There is a smoothness, a naturalness in the results of purely electronic information transfixed through a recorder's tape head that you can't get for at least have trouble preserving when the recording medium is a needle searching its way along a plastic [WORD ILLEGIBLE] When I listen to much for pure [WORD ILLEGIBLE] these days, I choose to listen to tape, if the music is available on tape.
The content of those casettes is also an index of changing times. The performing group is the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, which has been singing "Messiah" for 160 years and gave its first complete performance in this hemisphere. In Boston (where I grew), the Handel and Haydn performances of "Messiah" are a tradition only slightly less venerable than the celebrations in honor of Paul Revere's ride or the Battle of Bunker Hill, and when the Society changed its basic approach to "Messiah" 10 years ago, the controversy and turmoil surpassed anything that city had seen since the historic Tea Party.
The older interpretation, featuring a chords of about 150 voices and rearrangements of the music by hands that ranged from those of Mozart to those of Bhenezer Pruit, was recorded in 1955 by the nondefunct. Uniform company and can still be obtained from Reader's Digest Records. It [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and on records. It still is growing impressive "Messiah." No record can capture the full effect of standing up in Symphony Hall while those 150 voices tore into the "Hallelujah" Chorus, (one stood because George III always used to stand at the point; according to one theory he mistook for the British national anthem). Or sitting while they did their magnificent subita porto on "Wonderful Counsellor." The sound was only a part of it, but the sound was very impressive, and that record caught it well.
The new "Messiah," introduced 150 years after six complete performance on this continent and now available on Advent EE1051 (two cassettes), was a lighter, slimmed does version, with a small chorus and rather than Mozart Prout et al. Actually, it chose among various Handel setting, since the composer conducted at least four slightly diferent versions during his life time and never produced a single, definite text. To be completely authentic, it should also use buroque violins with gut strings, which have a significantly different tone from the modern instrument, and perhaps the slacker, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 18th-century boy, which looks [WORD ILLEGIBLE] like something you might use to the ban arrow. Also the pitch should had worned about a hunt ton to was it was if [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
Finally, for total authentriaty, the performance should not be recorded - a process Handed probably never dreamed of and one rigidly opposed to the spirit of free improvisation in vocal ornaments that underlies the music.
That problem is solved on this record by improving only moderately and (for the most part) unobtrusively - but darned if he same spontaneous improvisation is not there every time you replay it.
These moderately critical remarks should not be taken as a rejection of the new "Messiah." It is a stunning performance of a carefully reseached text, I have played it five times in the past week and enjoyed it thoroughly [PARAGRAPH ILLEGIBLE] many. "Messiah" on records for any one to be called definitive, but this is at least a model of one way to approach it, and the recorded sound is superb. Among other considerations, whatever may be said for the older approach with its roof raising "Hallelujah," this is a "Messiah" that fits comfortably into your living room. If it is not the only true "Messiah," it is at least one you can believe in.