The culmination of the London Handel Festival is a much anticipated event, and tonight’s performance of Handel’s radiant composition L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was no exception. With an array of eminent musicians performing to a packed St George’s, Hanover Square, the mood was celebratory and the performance had a glow and energy that suited Handel’s mercurial music.

Laurence Cummings © Sheila Rock
Laurence Cummings
© Sheila Rock

Despite the Italian title, L’Allegro... is one of Handel’s happiest settings of English texts, by John Milton and Charles Jennens. “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” consist of a succession of descriptive vignettes, contrasting the happy person (L’Allegro) and the thoughtful, reflective character (Il Penseroso) and their reactions to nature and society. In the third part, “Il Moderato”, Jennens unites the two Milton poems with a moralising conclusion.

Milton’s text is unlike any other libretto seen in Handel’s compositions; there is no connecting narrative, no defined characters, no dialogue between the three soloists and no political or religious agenda. This freedom allowed Handel to write some of his most descriptive word setting for Milton’s often unusual verse. Tonight’s soloists made the most of the text, relishing the flowery vocabulary and delivering it with crystal clarity. Following a lilting overture, directed gracefully by Laurence Cummings from the harpsichord, tenor Stuart Jackson opened with a characterful recitative, with beautifully descriptive vocal colours for the emotive text and brooding lower strings depicting the “ebon shades” and “dark Cimmerian desert”.

An arresting “Hence, vain deluding Joys” launched us into the first of Rosemary Joshua’s “Il Penseroso” sections. Her light, easy, high soprano had a wonderfully conversational tone which suited the style this section. L’Allegro, sung by Anna Dennis, has some fiendish coloratura moments, which she tackled with ease, and although her text was occasionally lost in the orchestral texture, her flexibility of range and vocal colour was impressive.

One of the highlights of the first half was the comic laughing aria performed by the tenor soloist, Stuart Jackson, and the chorus. Jackson had a very jolly demeanour, which set the chorus up for their imitative sections beautifully. The London Handel Singers were crisp, clear and tidy, and shaped all their phrases beautifully with equally clear diction.

Handel’s use of obbligato solo instruments came into its own in Il Penseroso’s aria towards the end of Part 1. The obbligato flute solo was wonderfully bird like and Joshua matched this purity of tone wonderfully, incorporating some beautiful birdy ornamentation into the da capo, which was imitated by the flautist. Rosemary Joshua’s impressive vocal range was showcased throughout, and she had a lovely simple quality to arias such as “Hide me from day’s garish eye” in Part 2.

The first part ended with a surprising aria from Dennis, “O let the merry bells ring round”, in which Handel uses the celeste as an obbligato solo instrument. There was a festive spirit to the piece, in which harpsichordist Alastair Ross leapt from harpsichord to the celeste to the organ and back again with great dexterity. Bass soloist George Humphrey had a commanding presence though out and this was displayed in his Part 2 aria, in which his impressive coloratura and rich tone delivered the text with ease.

Before Part 3, we were treated to a performance of Handel’s Organ Concerto Op. 7 no. 1, played with great virtuosity by Laurence Cummings. This displayed the whole range of the St George’s organ and was impressively synchronised with the London Handel Orchestra at the opposite end of the church. The antiphonal effects enabled Cummings to use all the different registrations on the instrument and the interplay with the orchestra was gracefully managed. We then were launched straight into the final part of L’Allegro... with another dramatic bass entrance and the underlying morals of Part 3 whisked us toward the end of the evening.

Handel is a wonderfully colourful composer and, when given the freedom that tonight’s work provided him with, he ensures a delightful evening of entertainment. The London Handel Festival encompasses the whole range of Handel’s output and tonight was no exception, with one of his most varied, expressive and fun compositions, performed with light and life.