Ever heard the Goossens Messiah?

Ever heard the Goossens Messiah?


norman lebrecht

June 20, 2019

The Eugene Goossens reorchestration of Messiah gets a rare airing on Sunday in Sydney, the city where his long career as a conductor fell foul of mid 20th century morality. Believed to be the first Australian performance of this arrangement in over thirty years, the pro-am Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and Choir are joined by the young voices of Barker College’s Chamber Choir conducted by Peter Ellis in the Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood.

“It’s a glorious arrangement, to be approached with an open mind. I’m looking forward to combining this rich orchestration with a somewhat more informed approach to tempi. As someone who grew up surrounded by the famous choral names of the Northern England tradition, I’m certainly not opposed to a grand Messiah”.


  • Wladek says:

    Why ????? Handels’ Messiah was written for the audience
    of his time.,if you want a modern Messiah then write one.
    These rearrangements are nothing but examples ln how the untalented cheapen the art.

  • MusicBear88 says:

    Yes, I’ve heard it in its glorious Beecham recording with Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers and Giorgio Tozzi. Apparently Joan Sutherland was to be the soprano but Jennifer Vyvyan did the recording instead. Sutherland did it two years later with Adrian Boult and a very young Grace Bumbry.

    It’s bombastic, it’s anachronistic, it’s Handel dressed in Mahler’s clothing, and I have to say that on the right day I absolutely love it. The extremely slow tempi for some of the choral movements is a detractor, but the arias are thrilling, and why not begin “Hallelujah” with a giant cymbal crash?

    • MWnyc says:

      Well, if you’re going to do Messiah with a Mahlerian orchestra and choir, then Handel-dressed-in-Mahler’s-clothing is the way to do it. Goossens was quite right.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I have the Beecham recording. We put it on when we have purist musical visitors we want to get rid of!

    • Wladek says:

      One suspects you would also paint over
      the Mona Lisa in day glow paint. Gotta keep
      updated !!!

    • Armchair Bard says:

      Yah, ‘purist’! What a silly, straw-man remark. OK. It’s obvsly axiomatic that in the case of any given work by a competent (never mind ‘great’) composer the scoring is of a piece with…well, the piece; the two indissolubly bound (I know…) for optimal results.

      Otoh, Goossens’s orchestration [not in fact just his on Beecham’s LPs, but let that pass] of t’Messiah is a complete blast. As is the performance. Noisy knock-out stuff, hugely enjoyable on its own terms.

      Yah, non-purist!

      • Wladek says:

        Yah,non purist ! except the work functions quite well without the Goossens-Beecham touch . I
        suppose it all depends on the position one occupies on the musical food chain. Seems
        the lower one is the more the tampering .Reminds one of the Rossini story
        in sarcastically complimenting a famous soprano on singing
        “knock out stuff “of his…”.Madame you were
        marvelous ,I even recognized a note or two that I
        wrote”. It is not about being a purist ,it is about
        having respect for the creativity of others .

    • Edgar says:

      How wicked of you. But, hearing Beecham’s recording with open mind – oh so glorious!! Handel on all cylinders. Love it.

    • William says:

      I laughed at your last sentence. What a great suggestion! Now I know how to rid myself of those ‘informed performance practice’ Stasi wannabees. LOL!

  • Don Ciccio says:

    I heard it twice live, both times with the National Symphony in Washington with Rossen Milanov conducting. And, of course, I have the Beecham recording.

    What I never heard live is Mozart’s arrangement.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    the Beecham recording is simply magnificent. I think that Handel would have been thrilled with it.

  • Wurtfangler says:

    The Beecham recording is wonderful. Handel himself would definitely approve, and would have used the triangle for sure! I used to work in a classical CD shop and if I felt there were too many sandal-wearing bearded vegetarians in the shop I would start playing the Hallelujah chorus. Never failed to get the reaction I was after.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The story as I have long understood it is that Beecham commissioned Goossens to re-orchestrate Messiah in part to funnel some money his way after the scandal in Australia cost Goosens engagements and income, and in part because Beecham wanted a modern orchestration to annoy the purists. But when Goossens delivered his work it was not quite outrageous enough for Beecham, who touched it up. I read somewhere that the cymbals in the Hallelujah chorus were Sir Thomas’s work, not Goossens’s. (I do confess to loving Beecham’s incredible accelerando at the end, and it can hardly be said that the cymbal crashes lessen the excitement).

    I am somehow reminded of Rossini’s quip when he was asked why late in life he orchestrated his Petite messe solennelle. He said the only reason he did it was to pre-empt Berlioz from orchestrating it for an ensemble of saxophones.

    I also recall reading that EMI was so very anxious to have Joan Sutherland take part in the Messiah recording that it somehow rubbed Sir Thomas the wrong way, and to salvage the recording EMI agreed to a different soprano. This may be rumor but supposedly Sir Adrian Boult was not too pleased with Sutherland’s participation in his recording, referring to “Mad Scenes from Messiah” (she did ornament). Perhaps Beecham sensed that a Messiah with Joan Sutherland was going to be the Sutherland Messiah.

    • Stuart says:

      The Rossini quip doesn’t sound authentic – is there a source? Rossini orchestrated Petite Messe in 1867. By then, Berlioz was no longer active and he died in 1869. I think Berlioz only used the Sax in an arrangement in 1844 (lost?) and none of his major works has a Sax part.

  • Jack says:

    It’s a hoot! Love it. And I’m about as ‘authentic’ as you can find. But Messiah has more than one history, and one of those were the Crystal Palace tradition. The Goossens Messiah is resplendent in the hands of Sir Thomas Beecham in his late 1950s rendition. John Vickers’ ‘Every Valley’ and ‘Why Do The Nations’, are not to be missed.

    • MacroV says:

      I was never much of a Messiah fan, but I paid more attention when I heard an interview on CBC once with Jon Vickers and they played “Every Valley;” it was a “Who/What is THAT?” moment. Every other tenor I’ve heard pales in comparison.

      I LOVE the Beecham recording; as I said once on an Amazon review: If you want authenticity, get an unheated room, some crappy, out-of-tune instruments, and some candles. I’ll take Beecham/Goosens and all the power of a modern orchestra.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I love the Goosens and I hope for two things:
    1. A modern recording with first rate performers. Chandos seems a good fit for recording it.
    2. Easily accessible performance parts and score.

    Messiah really needs a face lift. Great music, but modern ears want something splashing, HIP be damned.

  • Tully Potter says:

    I loathe that version of Messiah, but I would like to point that Goossens fell foul, not of ‘mid 20th century morality’ but of early 20th century morality. I’ve read his story in some detail and Australia was clearly, like South Africa where I grew up, at least 20 or 30 years behind the times.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Dear Mr. Potter,
      Totally non-apropos of this post, I beg you, PLEASE write a massive book on the history of stringed-instrument performance and techniques, with perhaps a selected discography.
      I have always been in awe of your knowledge and erudition on the subject, as well as your engaging style of writing.

  • jim says:

    When huge, bombastic performances of Messiah were the norm there was good reason to rail against them, but now that the pendulum has swung rather decisively in the other direction perhaps we can all relax. I prefer what is now considered a more “authentic” (a word I’m using very loosely) approach to the music, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the occasional performance that flouts the rules of the authenticity police. I know it’s fun to argue about these things, but it does get a little silly. The Beecham recording will never be my first choice, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it for what it is. I would love the opportunity to hear it live .

  • Marg says:

    As a ‘Messiah’ lover who will attend any performance on offer in Sydney, I will be there on Sunday and although something of a purist, I go with an open mind to perhaps hear it a little differently. There are some excellent soloists and I expect to come away feeling uplifted as I always do with the pairing of such wonderful text and music

  • Very interesting to read all this. Regardless of the HIP versus un-HIP lobbies (or perhaps HIPP to be strictly correct), I’d like to point out that the Crystal Palace tradition of huge-scale performances of Messiah continues, having been resurrected at the Royal Albert Hall in 1974 by The Really Big Chorus. Around 3,5000 singers come and join us each year; we make no claims at all for authenticity, but we do use Handel’s orchestration. There’s no rehearsal, and it shouldn’t be good, but it is – really, really good – and it is hugely enjoyed by the amateur singers and professional players/soloists alike. You can see what it looks like – the image in the original post is one of ours (courtesy of Chris Christodoulou), with Brian Kay conducting. I’d invite you all to come and listen on 7 December, but it’s almost sold out!

  • Lady Goanna says:

    Handel wrote it for the instruments available at the time, but the themes and melodies actually lend themselves to another level of vision, such as the timpani doing an earthquake type low rumble during the passage about quaking. It is a fantastic development of a fantastic piece of music.