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Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

CD Button Webster; Kilsby, Ovenden, Harvey, Riches; Gabrieli Consort and Players, McCreesh. Gabrieli/Signum SIGCD 392 (2). English text

Recordings Handel Allegro Cover 1115

MOST HANDEL-LOVERS admit a special affection for his 1740 work L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Without storyline or dramatic situations — neither opera nor oratorio — the piece honors an Enlightenment aesthetic of balance and self-control that still resonates today. Based on two John Milton poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, but alternating the cheerful and pensive moods, Handel’s pageant-like composition contrasts outgoing and introspective temperaments, city life and country dwelling, noise and quiet, day and night, in such vivid and compelling pictures that it’s impossible for one to achieve dominance. Happily, none is required, because Handel insisted that librettist Charles Jennens (of Messiah fame) come up with a middle way, not found in Milton, extolling balance, proportion and reason.

It’s a pleasure to hear conductor Paul McCreesh return to Handel, and his thoughtful approach is matched by passionate, deeply felt performances, especially from the chorus and orchestra (the Gabrieli Consort and Players). Handel left no overture; McCreesh’s choice of the composer’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 1, sets a stately opening, with violins in refined discourse while the cellos glide elegantly beneath. Throughout, the instrumental playing is stunning, often outdoing the solo singers in shapely phrasing and lively contours, and Handel’s Organ Concerto, Op. 7, No. 1, with William Whitehead as soloist, is a brilliant beginning to Part Three.

McCreesh reconstructs Handel’s original casting plan. He assigns a boy treble, with adult tenor and bass, to Allegro’s music, a female soprano to Penseroso’s, and introduces a baritone to Part Three’s Moderato. Tenor Jeremy Ovenden brings finely etched runs to the aria “Haste thee, nymph,” with the chorus nimbly echoing the exuberant line “laughter, ho-ho-holding both his sides.” Ovenden is nearly upstaged by the fleet, easily tripping violins in “There let Hymen oft appear,” but he’s amusingly posh on “I’ll to the well-trod stage anon” and brings an easy lilt to the minor-key “Let me wander, not unseen.”

Laurence Kilsby’s treble is remarkably mature, with a womanly sound and generous vibrato. His singing is shapeless, though, and uninteresting. After the violins’ scampering introduction to “Mirth, admit me of thy crew,” Kilsby sounds sluggish and opaque, though the sound is beautiful. The bass gets a different version of “Mirth, admit me,” with rollicking horn solos; Ashley Riches’s lusty singing is a delight, and he captures with ease the bustling, bubbling energy of “Populous cities please me then.” As Moderato, Peter Harvey’s suave baritone elegantly details “Come with native lustre”, and his singing embodies the aria’s final line, “easy, cheerful and sedate.”

Gillian Webster handles Penseroso’s lyrical, introspective arias with beautiful, even sound. Her smooth vocal production is ideal for the tranquil and remote “Hide me from day’s garish eye,” in which the strings produce an eerie, glassy tone that captures the sleeping poet’s desire to wake to sweet music, “above, about, or underneath.” The work’s hit tune, “Sweet bird,” is captivatingly sung (to Katy Bircher’s rapturous flute), but throughout the recording Webster is careless with text. She is difficult to understand and rarely uses the text to shape phrases. Like Kilsby, she has a smooth, even sound that is beautiful but ultimately disengaging.

Ruth Smith’s excellent essay graces the program booklet, but the unlabeled photographs of a disheveled woman and an unshaven man, both mugging, showing various emotions, are awful. —Judith Malafronte

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