Notes and Editorial Reviews
You probably haven’t ever heard this extraordinary bit of Handelian theatre, a sort of cross between ode and oratorio. Apparently—and inexplicably—it’s only had one new recording in more than a decade, until this captivating newcomer, whose presence all but eliminates the need for the four or five previous entries. For one thing, the music exemplifies all that we love about Handel—including a virtual feast of marvelous tunes, dramatic arias, and snazzy, sonorous choruses. But then there’s the orchestration, the ingenious conceptualization of the texts relative to their context and meaning, the right and satisfying harmonies, the instinctive alignment of aria to voice part (and to singer), the catchy
fugal ideas—and those choruses, which although not nearly so frequent or substantial as in the oratorios, nevertheless are as delightful to sing and eminently pleasing to the ear as in any of Handel’s works.
Handel had the advantage here of having some first-rate poetic material to work with—the selections from John Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso are as close to music as language can be: “Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee/jest and youthful jollity/quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,/nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles…”; or this: “Hide me from day’s garish eye/while the bee with honied thigh/that at her flow’ry work doth sing/and the waters murmuring/with such concert as they keep/entice the dewy-feathr’d sleep…Then, as I wake, sweet music breathe/above, about, or underneath/sent by some spirit to mortals good/or, th’unseen genius of the wood.”
For dramatic purposes texts from the two separate poems were re-arranged by Charles Jennens (of Messiah fame) to make a dialogue—between the two dispositions “sanguine” and “melancholy”; a third (and apparently immediately controversial) part, “Il Moderato”, whose text was supplied by Jennens, was added (at the insistence of Handel, according to Jennens) to join “the two independent Poems in one Moral Design”. Needless to say, Jennens was no Milton, and the texts definitely take a dive from the Miltonian heights in Part 3. Of course, Handel didn’t let that stop him; the music is just as good, especially evident in the dazzling soprano/tenor duet “As steals the morn upon the night”.
It helps that for this recording (“based on the London performances of January and February, 1741?) an extraordinary cast of singers and players was assembled, and first among these is Swedish soprano Maria Keohane. She has a lot to do here, and fortunately for us her expressive singing, her silver-sheened vocal quality, and her unfailingly affecting explication of whatever the text, music, and temperament (at different times she represents both L’Allegro and Il Penseroso) only makes us want to hear more. I’ve previously extolled and endorsed soprano Lucy Crowe as today’s preeminent Handel singer; and while I still stand by that view, on evidence of her performance here, Keohane belongs in the same company. Her two primary singing partners, tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass Andreas Wolf, are equally proficient in Handelian style and ideally matched with Keohane in vocal size and timbre—important qualities often and regrettably ignored when casting recording projects such as this.
The chorus perfectly captures the letter and spirit of its supporting role, usually as the collective echoing voice of a preceding aria. (Their rendition of “Haste thee, nymph”, following Hulett’s bravura solo, is a disc highlight.) And while this work is wholly about the singing and nothing but the singing, it can’t be a true success without great direction and orchestral support—and Peter Neumann and his Collegium Cartusianum prove as capable as we—and assuredly Mr. Handel—could hope for, complemented by clearly detailed, vibrant sound, “untwisting all the chains that tie the hidden soul of harmony.” Although this work from early 1740 may have faded into virtual obscurity after a period of success during Handel’s lifetime, it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t time for a new audience after hearing this new, irresistibly compelling production, a disc that should be on any respectable “best of the year” list. Highly recommended.
-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, HWV 55 by George Frideric Handel
Benjamin Hulett (Tenor),
Maria Keohane (Soprano),
Julia Doyle (Soprano),
Andreas Wolf (Bass)
Cologne Chamber Choir
Written: by 1740; London, England
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