HANDEL L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
L’Allegro is just the work for those who doubt that the periwigged monument of Victorian imagination was one of the most vital and sensuous of composers. Milton’s two complementary poems, skilfully filleted and interleaved by Handel’s friends James Harris and Charles Jennens, offered the composer a wealth of graphic images. He responded in a series of poetic vignettes that explore the contrasting temperaments of the cheerful extrovert (L’Allegro) and the shadow-seeking introvert (Il Penseroso) while evoking an Arcadian idyll, man and nature in perfect harmony. With characteristic 18th-century reasonableness, the concluding Il Moderato seeks to reconcile Milton’s two ‘extreme’ humours; but while Jennens’s abstract verse is something of an anticlimax (coffee house wags dubbed it ‘Moderatissimo’), the music is still delightful Handel, touching the sublime in the sunrise duet ‘As steals the morn’.
Paul McCreesh has chosen to replicate as closely as possible what Handel performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on February 27, 1740. In those days there was no question of nipping out to the bar in the intervals. Instead the audience stayed put while Handel’s band performed one of his new Concerti grossi Op 6, another of which had already served as overture. In the second interval the master then unfurled a ‘new concerto on the Organ’, the noble and resplendent Op 7 No 1. McCreesh’s concept works well, though it is a pity to miss a clutch of superb arias Handel included in later performances, above all ‘Sometimes let gorgeous Tragedy’ and ‘May at last my weary age’.
Following Handel’s precedent, L’Allegro’s music is divided between three male singers: a treble, a tenor and a bass. With the lion’s share of the music, Jeremy Ovenden sings with rounded, mellifluous tone and audible delight in Milton’s imagery, whether in an impish ‘laughing’ aria, seconded by the lusty chorus, the mock-pompous ‘I’ll to the well trod stage anon’ or, in reflective mode, a tenderly sustained ‘Let me wander not unseen’. Ashley Riches is resonant without bluster in the rollicking hunting aria, while 15-year-old Laurence Kilsby, in three arias, is the most vibrant, feminine-sounding boy treble I have ever heard. Pleasure in his performance was mitigated only by some rather vague words.
Soprano Gillian Webster can also be consonant-shy. But her gentle, slightly veiled tone and broad phrasing are near-ideal for Il Penseroso’s rapt arias, above all her poised, innig singing of the magical nocturne ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’. In Il Moderato, Webster and Ovenden combine beautifully in ‘As steals the morn’, while Peter Harvey’s sympathetic baritone is an effective agent of conciliation in the minuet aria ‘Come with native lustre shine’.
As ever in Handel, McCreesh paces and colours the music with an acute feeling for its specific tinta: say, the graceful, buoyant dance lilt of ‘Come and trip it’, the evocation of ‘the far-off curfew’ or the murmuring, secretive strings in the drowsy finale of Part 1 and ‘Hide me from day’s garish eye’. A word, too, for the eloquent obbligatos from flute, horn, cello and, not least, William Whitehead’s vivid performance of the organ concerto, using the full array of reed stops and pedals on the organ of Deptford Parish Church. My own favourite version of Handel’s unclassifiable masterpiece remains that by Robert King, above all for the singing of Susan Gritton and its absolute completeness. But Handel lovers can hardly fail to enjoy the mingled finesse and hedonistic delight of this new recording, its attractions enhanced by a stimulating essay from Handel scholar Ruth Smith.