Thursday, December 22, 2011

Handel: But who may abide the day of His coming?

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven greatly admired George Frederick Handel. That ought to be enough to convince the rest of us, no? It does not seem so. Praise of Handel usually takes the form of "appreciation" of "effects" and "craft" and "harmoniousness" rather than awe at inspiration. Indeed in our recent installment of our "Sacred Music" series we praised Handel for a most appropriate setting of a text in his Messiah. I myself commented on its "appropriateness" and not his genius. Well, here is something inspired.

In Part I of Messiah Handel sets the following text:
But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
To gain some appreciation for the task we may ask ourselves how we would set it? What tempo, meter, key, voices, and instruments do you use? What is the essence of the piece and what should it convey? What impression should it leave us with? Handel, appropriately, takes his cue from the source, the quotation's origin in the Book of Malachi.

Handel imitates the mood of the prophet with a setting for solo virtuoso. The detached longing of the opening andante yields to a sudden prestissimo as the speaker is seized in prophetic ecstasy, crashing and thrashing in a series of virtuosic leaps and runs. As is often the case with Handel this piece is moving in its simplicity and directness. Regardless of how often the piece was edited or transposed it demonstrates the composer's consideration of relationship between the form of the piece and the nature of the text and, in this case, a perfect marriage.

Kozena's performance, both musical and pantomimed, here is certainly channeling the prophetic and ecstatic current of the work. So does the direction with its extreme close up, a  direct and simple trick perfect for this piece.

Lastly, the opening images are provoking. This clip is from William Klein's filmed adaptation which features various videos contrasting and complementing the music. What is Klein suggesting here? Are the men in the opening charlatans? Does their presence suggest Malachi was also? Are the people fainting fools? Are we fools for being moved by Handel, or is it the artistic act that elevates, or creates, the true transcendent experience? Very provoking.

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