This exceptional Handel oratorio is based on two of Milton's youthful poems, "L'Allegro" ("The Happy Man") and "il Penseroso" ("The Pensive Man"), as well as Charles Jennens' verse, "il Moderato" ("The Moderate Man")...thus the unwieldy title of this disc! No matter as this pastoral ode is Handel at his finest, in my opinion, just as enthralling a work as his Messiah. The music is clever, joyous and consistently inventive. Thanks to a dynamic all-star cast, this disc completely captures the work's spirit as it is filled with fine melodies and lightning-fast mood changes. The result is a classical vocal recording of the highest order.
The five soloists shine brightly. Tenor Ian Bostridge paints his words brilliantly and enunciates the text in a stunning, natural manner that fleshes out every aria and recitative. He can be truly dazzling, for instance, capturing the merriment of his Part 1 solo, "Haste thee nymph". Bostridge seems to recognize every mood with his flexible voice. Complementing him are two stellar sopranos, Lynne Dawson and Christine Brandes. The seasoned Dawson is in full and warm voice, and she has an excellent showcase for her subtlety of phrasing and passionate treatment of words. She can be equally persuasive in Allegro and Penseroso music, for example, in Part 1, with the song group starting with "Come, pensive nun", which is raptly done, and in the spirited "Mirth, admit me of thy crew" just afterward. Her final duet with Bostridge, "As steals the morn upon the night", is a high point. At some points, she could loosen up to better capture the frivolity of some of her solos, but her artistry is amazing nonetheless. Brandes proves up to the challenge of her more experienced colleagues and excels with the extended air, "Sweet bird, that shunn'st the noise of folly", and in her plaintive rendition of "Oft on a plat of rising ground". Bass Alastair Miles also proves himself here, singing the fast, acrobatic music, as well as the more introspective with ease and grace. His high point has to be "Come, with naïve lustre shine" which opens "il Moderato". But once again, I save my highest praise for last. As in nearly all his ensemble recordings, countertenor David Daniels is the resident standout. Some of the music he sings was assigned to the soprano voice but now has been transposed and assigned to his voice type. The results are wondrous, as Daniels sings with great delicacy and fine control. No one can induce a greater sense of romanticism as well as he can. His solo, "Hide me from Day's garish eye" is a particularly striking moment on this recording sung with requisite sweetness but instilled with his unparalleled vocal dexterity. This has to be the best piece on the entire two-disc set.
The Bach Choir sings immaculately with the right level of spirituality and drama. Conductor John Nelson leads the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, who play modern versus period instruments. The overall sound still feels authentic and quite moving. Highly recommended for Baroque music lovers and a must-have for Handel followers. If you enjoy this style of music, I also recommend getting the 1999 Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra recording of Thomas Arne's "The Masque of Alfred", which prominently features Daniels and Brandes.