Prom 2: 21st July 2001 – HANDEL’S THIRD WAY

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
(original version of 1740, with revised finale to part 1)

Tristan Hambleton (treble)
Sophie Daneman (soprano)
Paul Agnew (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)

Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Whatever the claims of the First Night (Paul Bunyan inspired by a legend of wide-open America, Elgar affected by the Malvern hills in his Cello Concerto and John Adams’s comment on the BBC2 broadcast that the countryside of his Vermont birthplace still has an effect on his music), it was William Christie’s visit with his Les Arts Florissants that really kick-started the main thematic trajectory of this year’s season – Pastoral – with Handel’s ’Pastoral Ode’ after Milton.

Bringing Handel to London from France may be like bringing coal to Newcastle (how un-pastoral!), but Christie has made his name in this repertoire and has previously treated us to Handel’s Semele at the Proms (as well as Rameau’s Zoroastre). For L’Allegro, he returned to Handel’s original thoughts, first heard on 27 February 1740 (in a theatre that had been pre-warmed by blazing fires, against the very cold winter that had closed theatres for two months) with the same vocal line-up – treble, soprano, tenor and bass. There was a nod to the gallery in using a revision of the first part’s finale (’Or let the merry bells ring round’) with its utterly winning carillon – not played, as advertised, by Christie himself.

This textual issue is of some interest. There are four versions, as outlined in the programme, one for each year until 1743 – each has a different vocal complement. The only other complete Proms performance, in 1988 under Denys Darlow, was one for four female voices; all the recordings cited in the programme’s ’Further listening’ section use various combinations of multiple singers. Christie was getting back to basics.

It may have been cruel to employ a treble in the vast edifice of the Royal Albert Hall, but Tristan Hambleton certainly had stage presence – his bright, clear tones generally made it over Christie’s ever-watchful accompaniment, with only the slightest occlusion of words. In emphasising his contribution with natural hand movements, Hambleton’s enthusiasm was matched by Paul Agnew who seemed to be having a whale of a time, turning to chorus members expectantly when it was their turn to join in. Sophie Daneman, who bore the whole of the more diffident and reflective ’Penseroso’ sections, was rapt and true, while Andrew Foster-Williams (a late replacement for an unwell Anton Scharinger) belied such short-notice by singing without a score and with great assurance (especially in part two’s bubbling ’Populous cities please me then / And the busy hum of men’). The chorus was not arrayed by voice, but stood in a single line mixing soprano, alto, tenor and bass in seemingly random order, an arrangement which seemed to give a naturally balanced sound.

So, what of this ’third way’? Well, L’Allegro – one of Handel’s first oratorios in English – was based on texts by John Milton, as selected by James Harris and Charles Jennens. They, with Handel’s approval, conjoined Milton’s two contrasting poems ’L’Allegro’ and ’Il Penseroso’ (roughly equating to the humours, mirth and melancholy) so Handel was able to vary his music between alternating sections.

Pastoral allusions abound: Sophie Daneman was accompanied with aplomb in ’Sweet bird, that shun’st at the noise of folly’ by the flute of Serge Saïta, while Glenn Borling’s raucous horn characterised the bass’s air ’Mirth, admit me of thy crew / To listen how the hounds and horn’ immediately after. Pairs of trumpets, oboes and bassoons were featured in part two, the double-reed pairs in the third part. Here, ultimately, the opposing sides of the tenor’s extrovert and soprano’s introvert natures are brought together in the Jennens-penned final part – Il Moderato – which for the first time allows a duet, proving, musically at least, that a middle way is best.

Although the work begins with no preamble and ends quietly, Christie treated us, as an overture, to two movements of a Handel Concerto Grosso (Op.6/10 written at the same time, and with some historical probability), and, as an encore, to a further duet for Agnew and Daneman – ’Happy We’ from the slightly earlier Acis and Galatea (due as the late-night Prom on 6 August), which these forces have recently recorded.

A few minor discrepancies in words apart (Paul Agnew changed the meaning of one of his opening lines by distinctly singing ’When brooding Darkness sheds his jealous wings’ – instead of spreads) this was a thoroughly convincing performance. For those who missed it, the repeat Radio 3 broadcast on 24 July would be worth tuning in to.

  • Catch this Prom L’Allegro on BBC Radio 3 this Tuesday afternoon, 24 July, at 2 o’clock

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