By Christopher Morley

World-renowned as a Berlioz interpreter, John Nelson steps back more than a century when he conducts Handel’s Messiah in Coventry Cathedral later this month.

This will be Nelson’s first visit to this symbol of international reunification rising from the horrors of World War II, but is by no means his first Messiah. ,

 “It has been a long-term dream to conduct the Messiah in Coventry. In today’s turbulent world, where conflict has returned to Europe and the suffering of millions of displaced families has come close to all our lives, I hope that this concert of the Messiah in this symbolic location can be a powerful message of hope,” he says.

“A lifetime of performing the Messiah in wildly varying situations (a poor performance early in my career at Westminster Choir College, a bloated performance with 300 choristers in Chicago, a China premiere performance in Shanghai) has brought me, at the age of 80, enough courage to record this singularly famous piece of music.

“As a believer, as a rather new member of the Anglican Communion and with the finest musicians and soloists on the planet, I’m finally ready to lay down my personal interpretation for posterity. This recording will be a world premiere of sorts as it will incorporate for the first time in history all seven versions Handel wrote during his lifetime.”

John Nelson tells me more about the Chinese premiere of Messiah.

“Thanks to my relationship with Shirley Young, the Chinese/American former Chief Executive Officer of General Motors for the Far East, I have spent 30 years conducting Western music all over China. The first engagement was the Brahms German Requiem in Chinese!  The second was Messiah, fortunately in English. I could write a book about each experience. For now I’ll just mention that there were a host of “undercover” Christian Chinese women stationed behind the choir praying for the performance. How wonderful and amazing was that?!”



How did John come to collate Handel's seven performing versions. Did he look at the Mozart performing edition as well?


All the versions Handel wrote to accommodate the various singers in his many performances are found in most of the editions printed today. To my knowledge no recording in history has included all these versions in one album. We will lay down my favourrite version and then add all the variations. 

Of course I looked at the Mozart version but have no interest in addressing it here. No trombones please!”


Period-instrument Handel is a long way from full-blown Berlioz, I observe, and John responds.

“Several years after I graduated from Juilliard (where my French conducting teacher, Jean Morel, never once spoke about Berlioz!) I was introduced to and smitten by Berlioz’ unique musical language and that caused me to spend more time in his music than any other composer’s.


“That is not to say he is my favourite. Bach, my desert island composer, remains in that place. Mozart probably comes next. Berlioz not far behind. But Messiah has been in my bones since I was a child brought up in a very religious family (Protestant missionaries to Costa Rica). I’m now a member of the Anglican communion and as such the Messiah score holds double meaning for me.


“I have only once conducted Messiah with original instruments but fortunately and gratefully I will be surrounded by the best period instrument band on the planet - the English Concert. They will certainly keep me in line. 

John’s faith is obviously the beacon of his life. Is he drawn towards sacred works?

“Yes it is. A wandering believer in my early years, I have become a convinced believer as I approach my last years. Having conducted all the major religious works in the repertoire I’m quite anxious to record many of the great ones like Brahms’ Requiem, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Bruckner’s Masses that I’ve not had the privilege of doing. The next is Mozart’s Requiem with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in February.”


Perhaps he will conduct Mendelssohn’s Elijah in its magnificent birthplace, Birmingham Town Hall.


*John Nelson conducts Handel’s Messiah with the English Concert and soloists including Lisette Oropesa (currently starring in Handel’s Alcina at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) at Coventry Cathedral on November 24 (7pm) . Details on 024 7652 1200.



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