As a setting of John Milton’s ode, which reflects upon the two human moods of melancholy and mirth without constituting anything so clearly defined as a narrative, there is the temptation in a performance to let Handel’s L’Allegro become either a series of exaggerated character pieces, or a straight rendition of a finely set text lacking any dramatic thrust. Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players and Consort successfully steer a middle course, however, impeccably following the injunction of the work’s third part to keep the median way of moderation, for which Charles Jennens provided the words.
McCreesh and his ensemble maintain an organic, dramatic pace from one number to the next without any sense of incongruity, as one temperament is juxtaposed with the other and a range of different scenes is conjured up as an allegory of them. The hunting horns of ‘Mirth admit me of thy crew’ are warm and immaculately played, whilst the accompaniment of the chimes in ‘Or let the merry bells ring round’ is infectiously joyful. Overall, there is an unfailing vitality in the musicians’ rendition, sympathetically suited to the particular disposition on display.
The singers follow suit. Gilliam Webster is bright and clear, remaining sober and level-headed in tone, not least in ‘Sweet bird’, but also creating a sense of aching, which is tantalising in its central section. In a treble role, Laurence Kilsby sings charmingly and intelligently, whilst Ashley Riches provides gravitas in the bass numbers. Jeremy Ovenden and Peter Harvey are more mannered, but that seems to be a deliberate interpretative decision as they bring out specific characters in the numbers allotted to them.
This recording reconstructs, for the first time, the work’s first performance in 1740 (as with most of his works, Handel tinkered with the score subsequently). It is a slightly tauter version, omitting some numbers which are ordinarily performed but stem from later revisions. Each part is prefaced with one of Handel’s Concertos, selected to fit with the tonal scheme of the work. Two of the Opus 6 Concertos, which had been freshly composed the year before, are featured, and William Whitehead takes the solo part in the First of the Opus 7 Organ Concerto, performing dexterously on a chamber organ built in the style of the period.
The text is provided within the hardback presentation and the recording – made in three locations – is consistently excellent.