Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh [Signum Classics]

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L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato – Ode in three parts to a libretto by James Harris and Charles Jennens after John Milton [original 1740 version; sung in English]
interspersed with
Concerto Grosso, Op.6/1 (in G) & Concerto Grosso, Op.6/3 (E minor), and Organ Concerto in E flat, Op.7/1

Gillian Webster (soprano), Laurence Kilsby (treble), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone) & Ashley Riches (bass)

Peter Whitehead (organ)

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Recorded in London – on 11 May 2013 in Henry Wood Hall; 18-20 June 2014 in St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town; and 9-10 December in St Paul’s, Deptford

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: July 2015
SIGCD 392 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 21 minutes

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.

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