Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (recreation of original performance of 1740)
Gillian Webster (soprano); Laurence Kilsby (treble); Jeremy Ovenden (tenor); Peter Harvey (baritone); Ashley Riches (bass); William Whitehead (organ)
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. 2013/14, Henry Wood Hall; St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town; St Paul’s Deptford
SIGNUM SIGCD392 [77:12 + 64:26]

Paul McCreesh’s Winged Lion recordings are reasons to get excited. His stunning Grande Messe des Morts, Elijah and War Requiem have won multiple awards and accolades, not just because of their musical values, but because of McCreesh’s desire to get back to the origins of these works. That’s not just an academic exercise. His recordings are about re-creating a living, breathing, vital event.

The present recording of Handel’s L’Allegro, for example, doesn’t claim to be definitive: instead McCreesh says he wants merely to re-create the circumstances of the work’s very first performance - his line-up includes a treble - but to do so in a vibrant, musically interesting way. This he does triumphantly.

L’Allegro is an unusual work for Handel. It’s an oratorio, but it lacks a narrative thread. Instead, taking inspiration from Milton’s poetry, it juxtaposes different emotional states. The lively one (L’Allegro) is sung by the men with the thoughtful/melancholy one (Il Penseroso) sung by the soprano and, in this case, the treble. Handel was worried that simply setting one mood wholesale after the other would be trying for his listeners, so he mixed up the sections of the lively and the melancholy, and added a third part (Il Moderato) celebrating the virtues of moderation. Consequently, the work risks falling into a series of episodes rather than a coherent whole, but that’s what McCreesh seems to like. He rejoices in this “slightly crazy work”, and elsewhere the booklet notes celebrate the work’s "mesmerising tapestry of anticipation and surprise".

Typically, McCreesh has assembled a crack team to do justice to his idea. Gillian Webster sings with beautiful purity of tone and sensitivity to the words. Come rather, goddess rings with all the beauty of melancholy in its purest sense. Her lengthy Sweet bird, that shuns't the noise of folly, effectively a duet with the transverse flute, is very beautiful. As she mostly plays the Penseroso, she needs to maintain an air of languid beauty throughout. This she does pretty successfully but without every sounding mechanical or formulaic. Her companion, Laurence Kilsby has a lovely treble voice, bringing genuine artistic insight — rather than a token authentic sound — to Come, thou goddess, fair and free and to later arias like And ever against eating cares. Jeremy Ovenden sings with clarity and precision, his lively tone bringing great uplift to Haste thee, nymph with the chorus joining in the laughing figurations bringing enthusiasm and rare precision. He injects just the right amount of humour into his visit to the theatre to see Jonson and Shakespeare. I loved his duet with the trumpet in These delights, if thou canst give. Ashley Riches' bass makes a big difference when he first enters as Mirth, and he makes the Populous cities sound like very attractive places to be. Peter Harvey's baritone is distinctly coloured so that he seems to personify the Moderation of which he sings, and his few vocal contributions are very valuable. The famous duet, As steals the morn, is played and sung beautifully.

The regular interjections of the chorus are very appealing, too, no more so than in There let the pealing organ blow, the invocation of religion that ends Part Two. The organ itself plays an exciting role in both this and the ensuing concerto grosso. There are umpteen beautiful orchestral touches, such as the flute in Sweet bird, that shuns't the noise of folly, or the bells in Or let the merry bells ring round, or cello in But O!, sad virgin. McCreesh also includes three Concerti Grossi as overtures to each part of the oratorio, and gives his reasons for doing so in the typically erudite and informed booklet notes. At first the string sound came across to me as a little pale here, but I soon warmed to it, and the third concerto with the organ sound especially fantastic.

So McCreesh has done it again, presenting a familiar work in a fresh guise and arguing a case for things we hardly knew were there before.

Simon Thompson

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