Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740)

Gillian Webster soprano, Laurence Kilsby treble, Jeremy Ovenden tenor, Peter Harvey baritone, Ashley Riches bass, William Whitehead organ, Gabrieli Consort, Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh
141:38 (2 CDs)
Signum Classics SIGCD392

An extremely interesting and important issue, which attempts to reconstruct the initial version of this lovely work. To those familiar with existing recordings, the changes are twofold- items added for the 1741 and subsequent revivals are omitted (so for example there is no ‘Bellman’s Drowsy Charm’, no ‘Daisies Pied’ or ‘Gorgeous Tragedy’ and no ‘Hairy Gown And Mossy Cell’) while ‘Concerto’s for Several Instruments’ are included (Op 6 nos 1 and 3 before Parts 1 and 2 respectively, and the organ concerto Op 7 no 1 before Part 3.)

McCreesh also follows Handel’s initial vocal distribution, with the L’Allegro airs being sung by three male voices (treble, tenor and bass) and Penseroso by a female soprano. The results are most persuasive- the work fresh from Handel’s imagination, before the practicalities of performance take over, has a fine conciseness and sense of overall shape. Despite the complete lack of a “story”, the contrasting moods set out in the opening accompagnatos with the protagonists subtly mimicking each other’s affects, and wondrously further explored throughout the work, are satisfyingly resolved in the glorious final duet.

The performance, as one would expect, is very fine. McCreesh is an experienced Handelian with a long and distinguished discography, and he does not disappoint here. The soloists are good – I especially enjoyed Laurence Kilsby’s astonishingly mature-sounding treble and Jeremy Ovenden’s intelligent tenor (though why the declamation in “There let Hymen oft appear”?) Allegro’s character is ably completed by Ashley Riches’ mellow bass. Gillian Webster provides a creamily passionate Penseroso (though sometimes clarity of diction is sacrificed to beauty of tone) and Peter Harvey is an eloquent Moderato.The choir and orchestra are as good as ever.

The sumptuously produced booklet has exemplary notes (in particular a fine and scholarly essay by Ruth Smith), though one might have liked mug shots of all the performers, rather than the several art-pics of only a couple of them!

This should be an essential addition to any serious Handel collection.

Alastair Harper