After Friday’s sublime performance of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the opening concert of 2013 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, I am puzzled why this ravishing masterpiece doesn’t enjoy wider popularity (although it was performed recently at the London Handel Festival). Perhaps it’s because the work doesn’t have a dramatic plot like Saul or Samson or it doesn’t have grand choral numbers like in the Messiah or Israel in Egypt. Certainly it is a more lyrical work – perhaps more a watercolour than an oil painting – but Handel sets Milton’s text with such sensitiveness and sensuousness, and such imaginative orchestral writing that it is indeed a harmonious marriage of poetry and music. Needless to say, Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players and the four soloists deserve the highest praise in bringing this work to life with such conviction and style.

Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Singers at Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music © Jonathan Rose 2013
Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Singers at Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music
© Jonathan Rose 2013

The work was inspired by Milton’s two 1630s poems about the two contrasting sides of human nature: in “L’Allegro” he explores the merry side and in “Il Penseroso” he explores the thoughtful side. Handel, with the help of his librettists James Harris and Charles Jennens, combined the two poems in the first two parts of his work and treated these two sentiments alternately. Handel’s seemingly limitless invention in expressing these contrasting sentiments is hugely impressive. But Handel, very much the 18th-century man, didn’t want to end with the two emotions in opposition, but wanted a harmonious conclusion to his work. Thus he added a section called “Il Moderato” (temperate man), based on a newly written text by Jennens.

As Paul McCreesh explains in his notes, there is no definitive version of this work, and on this occasion he chose to perform the version used for the first performance. He also preceded it by two movements from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 no. 1, as the work has no overture. The soprano Gillian Webster sang the persona of Il Penseroso, and in “L’Allegro”, which is shared by three singers, the soprano part was sung by Laurence Kilsby, a treble (as in Handel’s first performance). The eloquent English tenor Jeremy Ovenden and the young baritone Ashley Riches, who is currently a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera, completed the vocal line-up.

There were so many vocal highlights that it is difficult to choose, but the most exquisitely performed of all was the aria “Sweet bird, that shuns’t the noises of Folly” in Part 1, in which the soprano sings an extensive duet with the nightingale (flute). Gillian Webster and the flautist Katy Bircher (who was positioned in the gallery of St John’s Smith Square) responded to each other with style and grace – it was also nice to see that McCreesh trusted the performers and only conducted when he needed to bring the ensemble together. I was also hugely impressed by the precociously talented Laurence Kilsby, who showed great maturity and expressiveness in his aria “And ever against eating cares” in Part 2. His isn’t the typical ethereal voice of the boy chorister, but is stronger, richer and technically very secure. The jolly tenor/chorus aria “Haste thee, nymph” (Part 1) was sung with appropriate humour by Jeremy Ovenden, and Ashley Riches shone in his recitatives and arias in Part 3, displaying great sensitivity to the text. At the end of the work, the tenor and soprano comes together for the famous duet “As steals the morn”, which was warmly sung with wonderful solo from Katharina Spreckelsen on the oboe. There were also notable obbligato solos from the cello, horn, organ and even a carillon.

At the helm, Paul McCreesh controlled the orchestra and the chorus beautifully and his tempi were perfectly judged throughout. Unlike in his performances of Handel’s dramatic oratorios that I have heard previously, he took a more leisurely approach and didn’t push or drive the music and just let it flow naturally – only injecting energy when the music needed some forward momentum. The orchestral playing was generally excellent, although the violins, while nimble, sounded a little thin at first. The chorus was also outstanding, especially in the closing choral fugue in Part 2.

Perhaps it is because this is such a quintessentially 18th-century work that it is not as popular as some of Handel’s oratorios or odes, but performed with such sensitivity and well-judged sentiment as on this occasion, the work gives us nothing but pure pleasure.