Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato uses Milton’s pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, as interwoven by Charles Jennens to become Parts One and Two. Jennens, who called this sui generis work an “entertainment”, himself wrote the text of Part Three – Il Moderato – to add to those opposites a middle way. But with no characters or plot, how could a man of the theatre set this to music? The form of Handel’s work might explain its relative neglect, and there were plenty of seats available last night, but a good performance of a full text of all three parts (Handel sometimes replaced Part Three), makes that neglect inexplicable. It now seems a great English pastoral.

William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The four soloists in this performance by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants made a good team. The choice of a treble for four numbers was imperfect – though Handel did it at least once. Not that young Leo Jemison’s singing was less than well-schooled or skilful, but only his “And ever against eating cares” in Part Two really lay in his vocal sweet spot, so well sung that one did not miss the weight and colour of a mature female voice. The lightish bass-baritone of Sreten Manojlovic lacked penetration in the Barbican acoustic – like the treble he would have benefited from a space with more resonance – so was rather outgunned by the horn obbligato in “Mirth admit me of thy crew”. But he opened Part Three with the dignity appropriate to the praise of moderation.

Leo Jemison and William Christie
© Mark Allan | Barbican

It is the tenor and soprano who must carry this piece. Tenor James Way was a strong presence throughout, singing with good tone, a relish for the text, and an athletic coloratura. In “Haste thee, nymph”, he sang its final line of “laughter holding both his sides”, which Handel sets as “ho-ho-ho-ho-holding”, with shoulder-shaking jollity. Rachel Redmond has a pure and bright soprano ideal for her part, and was the most completely accomplished of this quartet. The pensoroso perspective is no party-pooper when sung with the sostenuto line and silvery sound Redmond brought to Part Two’s “Hide me from day’s garish eye”.

Rachel Redmond and Les Arts Florissants
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Handel’s many instrumental cameos added much to the gaiety of the occasion, just as in 1740. The horn was an impressive piece of plumbing to behold and Glen Borling played that notorious instrument with security. Not so the feeble whistling he interjected. (Perhaps that needs a different embouchure). More persuasive was the addition to the treble’s “Come thou goddess, fair and free” of a pair of antique cymbals, which though ancient were not heard in an orchestra before the 19th century. That at least satisfied musically, and such things are in the spirit of the work. The flute’s extended imitative warbling in “Sweet bird” outstayed its welcome, but cello, oboe, bassoon and trumpet players were all delightful executants in their similar moments. But the palm must go to Béatrice Martin, for her organ solo in “There let the pealing organ blow”, as well as contributions from celesta and harpsichord. The whole band, strings especially, was on dizzying form at times.

Milton’s “full-voiced quire” was provided by the twenty singers of the chorus of Les Arts Florissants, their many contributions quite outstanding, especially when closing each of the three parts. William Christie directed with all his customary close involvement, and profound belief in the work in hand. He surely persuaded any sceptics of the high standing of L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato even in Handel’s huge output.