Handel L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
L’Allegro would, with little doubt, be one of my desert island pieces, all the more so after listening to this, the first truly complete recording of Handel’s delectable pastoral ode. Milton’s two complementary poems, skilfully interleaved by Charles Jennens, offered a wealth of graphic, sensuous imagery; and the composer responded in a series of vignettes celebrating the English landscape with a freshness and fidelity of observation encountered in the paintings of Gainsborough and the poetry of James Thomson. The early numbers of L’Allegro – literally ‘the cheerful man’ – have a spontaneous exuberance barely matched in Handel’s output, while much of the music of Il penseroso (‘The melancholy man’) attains a contemplative ecstasy found elsewhere only in parts of Theodora. The whole work is suffused with an almost pantheistic sense of wonder and delight in the natural world, prompting Winton Dean to suggest, plausibly, that L’Allegro is more truly religious in tone than the extrovert Messiah. For Part 3, Il moderato, Jennens offered a rational, very eighteenth-century reconciliation of Milton’s two extreme temperaments; and though his (inevitably) sub-Miltonian verse has often been derided, the music is still delightful Handel, and in the exquisite soprano-tenor duet ‘As steals the morn’ rather more than that.
The increasingly pensive tinge Handel gives to the music of L’Allegro, in such numbers as the siciliano tenor aria ‘Let me wander not unseen’ and the soprano aria ‘Now ever against eating cares’, perhaps indicates where the balance of his sympathies lay. While alive to the al fresco gaiety of numbers such as ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’ and ‘O let the merry bells’, Robert King gives full value to the tranquil reflectiveness that lies at the core of the work, favouring broad tempos and gravely expressive phrasing. Occasionally, as in the soprano aria ‘Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures’ and the pictorial accompanied recitative that follows, his approach seems a shade too reverential. But for the most part he directs this glorious music with affection and relish, abetted by vivid orchestral playing (the many obbligatos, notably from flute, horn and cello are invariably superb) and a typically responsive contribution from the chorus. And, unlike on many recordings, the balance between choir and orchestra is ideally judged. The sombrely majestic fugue that concludes Part 2, unfolded with a powerful sense of cumulative growth, is rightly one of the high points of the whole performance.
Much of the work’s burden is carried by the three soprano soloists, one taking L’Allegro’s soprano arias, the other two sharing the Penseroso numbers. And, for my money, it is here that King scores most decisively over the fine 1980 Erato recording from John Eliot Gardiner. In Susan Gritton, who takes many of the Penseroso arias, he has a soprano of rare accomplishment, with a warm, pure, yet highly individual timbre and a wonderful feeling for the broad Handelian line. Both the scena ‘Come pensive nun’ and the romantic nocturne ‘Oft on a plat of rising ground’, with its haunting evocation of ‘the far-off curfew’, are intensely moving; and, with the cellist Jane Coe, Gritton makes an eloquent case for the long florid aria ‘But O! sad virgin’, omitted in the Gardiner recording. Lorna Anderson, though a mite less secure above the stave, brings an appealing plangent tone to the nightingale aria ‘Sweet bird’ (done complete here, whereas Gardiner makes drastic cuts) and a trancelike absorption to the sublime ‘Hide me from Day’s garish eye’. Some slightly odd vowel sounds apart, Claron McFadden’s bright, eager tones and nimble coloratura serve the more extrovert arias well; and both the men make their mark, Neal Davies sturdy in his bucolic hunting number and mellifluous in his minuet aria in Il moderato, Paul Agnew personable and stylish as ever, though his legato is rather shown up by Susan Gritton’s in ‘As steals the morn’.
Those who already have the slightly more forthright, sharply etched Gardiner version needn’t rush to discard it. But for anyone coming fresh to this enchanting, often searching score I’d definitely recommend this new recording, for its absolute completeness, for the quality of the soprano soloists, above all Susan Gritton, and for King’s evident sympathy with the vein of rapt introspection which runs through so much of the work. Enjoy!'