Sunday, 12 April 2009

Messiah with a twist for Easter

In 1992 a large group of African-American musicians (including some I’ve even heard of in my white British and Western European art music bubble) got together and produced one of my favourite bits of music – Handel’s Messiah: a Soulful Celebration. Sixteen numbers from the 18th century masterpiece have been, for want of a better word, ‘jazzed up’, to create something I like even more than the original (as a classical musician, am I allowed to say that?) I give it a clear 9.5 out of 10 and the oscar for best adaptation. Mervyn Warren seems to have worked hardest on the artistic side of the project, and what a result! 

Having enjoyed the album for the last 10 years, I’m now really getting into it.

The ‘Overture’ is now a partial history of Black music, from African forest drums to Hip-Hop and House, using all Handel’s themes, given new poignancy in the Negro Spiritual section and new fire in the Jazz Fusion passage. ‘Every valley’ starts in proper baroque vein, hilariously interrupted by brassy synth and drums before the rapper starts up. ‘Why do the nations?’ is a big band jazz scat whirlwind, and so on…

Best of all (and guaranteed to make me cry) is ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ The drama of this track is incredible. Patti Austin sings it better than any bloke ever could (pace Handel), the choral snippets and hints at polyphony in ‘gospel’ style are exceedingly fitting, somehow the electronic instruments just work perfectly on the baroque figures and harmonies. The tension mounts with repetitions, questions, quasi-improv, interjections in that way that only Black religious music can, and when it is almost unbearable (for he is like a refiner’s fire… tell me, won’t ya’ who’s gonna stand, for you got to stand, stand…), after the instrumental a la Handel, the confidence of the singing voice comes to rest in a glorious major chord not found in the original, decorating a theologically welcome addition, ‘I know, I know, I know, I will abide’.

Whoa. Tears in my eyes just thinking about this. For who can abide the day of his coming? Only those who trust in the Messiah’s sacrifice on their behalf. They will be refined by the fire of judgement, not consumed, and they can know that they will abide. Who else but Christ can give such a hope? Who else has the words of eternal life? Who else is risen from the dead?

The tomb is empty – Jesus is alive! Hallelujah!