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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740) [170.43]
Linda Perillo (soprano)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Knut Schoch (tenor)
Stephan MacLeod (bass)
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec. live Kloster Eberbach, Eltville im Rheingau, Germany, May 2002
NAXOS 8.557057-58 [59.12 + 71.31]

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Once Handel started writing major works setting the English language he became the target of friends who had ideas about what sort of things he should set. He had collaborated within a group once before. When working for Lord Burlington, the literary circle surrounding him (including such people as Alexander Pope) came up the suggestions of and the librettos to Acis and Galatea and Esther.

Handel seems to have been strong-minded enough to be able to take suggestions from his friends and develop them or not as he saw fit. L’Allegro belongs to the fertile period when he was running Italian opera and English dramatic works in parallel. He had already set librettos by Charles Jennens (notably Saul) as well as such paragons as Dryden, so his friends were keen for him to show what he could do with Milton. James Harris prepared a treatment of Milton’s poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’. Handel was sympathetic to the idea but disliked Harris’s treatment and arranged for Jennens to provide him with a libretto which interleaved the two poems in order to create more variety of texture and mood. In the Augustan Age rational balance was all and so for a closing third part, Il Moderato, Jennens provided his own words in which the moderate man tempers the words of the cheerful and the pensive man. The work is not a dramatic oratorio but rather a pastoral ode, close in form to the Dryden settings, Alexander’s Feast and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.

L’Allegro is not a showy, dramatic work; it is one of those pieces in English pastoral vein which Handel mined so successfully throughout his English career. Such varied works as Acis and Galatea, Semele, Susanna and L’Allegro are linked by Handel’s feel for the pastoral imagery and the echoes of the English masque.

But this means that L’Allegro, lacking big showpieces and relying on gentle understatement and charm, is a tricky piece to bring off. For these discs Naxos has issued a recording which was originally released on the Junge Kantorei’s own label. It joins their growing collection of recordings of Handel oratorios but this recording demonstrates the potential weaknesses of their policy of buying recordings.

The recording was made live and unfortunately it has many of the vices and few of the virtues of live recording. I am sure that if I had been present in Kloster Eberbach, where the concert took place, I would have had an enjoyable evening. But transferred to disc, the performance lacks the élan and vitality that live recording can bring. Instead a sort of dutiful carefulness takes over, as if everyone was aware of making mistakes in front of the microphones. The recording was taken from a single concert, which probably did not help.

The soloists are recorded quite closely and not really given sufficient air. This goes some way to explaining why I found the sopranos Linda Perillo and Barbara Hannigan, so unaffecting. They both have good lyric voices but neither quite brings to the music the quality of affecting charm which is required. Tenor Knut Schoch is a fine stylist but suffers similarly. All three were rather weak when it came to the passagework and more virtuoso elements of the music.

The chorus make a fine, stylish sound and I would like to hear more of them, in better circumstances. But next time, in their native language please. Their English is creditable but indistinct. They do not project the text with clarity and that is an essential in an oratorio performance. This lack of emphasis on the words carries over to the soloists; their diction is decent enough but they just don’t make enough of the words.

The orchestra play quite stylishly but their playing lacks the infectious bounce which much of this music ought to have. A few untidinesses in the ensemble can perhaps be forgiven as this is a live recording.

The work is played complete, with no cuts in the third part. Handel did not write an overture for the piece and he is known to have played an Organ Concerto during it. For this performance the conductor Joachim Carlos Martini has opted to preface part 1 with a movement from Concerto Gross No. 6 Opus 1, and parts 2 and 3 with movements from the organ concerti. I am not convinced that this works and I see no reason why the work should not be given as Handel wrote it. The booklet contains notes and biographies; the text (English with a German translation) is available for downloading from the Naxos site.

‘L’Allegro’ is available in a venerable, but still highly desirable, recording by John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. More recently Robert King and the King’s Consort have also issued a superb recording. Turning to the Gardiner recording we discover all the qualities of charm and élan that Martini’s performance lacks. Gardiner and his forces give a beautiful shapeliness to the Penseroso and a lovely dance-like quality to the Allegro sections.

So if you want a recording, it is probably worth stretching to the price of Gardiner or King. Though Martini’s performance is available at budget price on Naxos I would hesitate to recommend the discs as an introduction to Handel’s work. The performances comes over as sober and a little dutiful; they are severely lacking in charm and humour. Compared with a performance such as that by the Gardiner or King, this one could leave a newcomer seriously underwhelmed. A performance of ‘L’Allegro’ should be enchanting and this one isn’t. For that, you will need to turn to Gardiner or King.

Robert Hugill


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