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5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Performance that Fully Vindicates Handel's Conception, 29 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Handel: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Audio CD)
Little by little, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740) is gaining recognition as one of Handel's masterpieces. The idea of interleaving passages from John Milton's twinned poems delineating two extremes of human temperament clearly inspired the composer; the actual literary work was done initially by James Harris and amended by Charles Jennens. The composer also had Jennens pen a final section praising the integration of "Mirth" and "Melancholy" into "Moderation."

The relative neglect of L'Allegro is often attributed to its lack of characters and story, though that has not stopped Alexander's Feast, another plotless (though narrative) work from receiving numerous recordings. A more likely explanation is the paucity of choruses, which, combined with the need for 4 or 5 first-class soloists, makes it a less than ideal fit for choral groups.

The fact that in later performances Handel dropped Part III (Il Moderato) entirely may also have encouraged the notion that the score is uneven in quality, or that Handel's conception of the work was fundamentally flawed.

If L'Allegro's profile has risen significantly in the last quarter century, it is due in part to American choreographer Mark Morris's magnificent dance opus, revived periodically, that uses well-nigh the entire score (with minor omissions and re-ordering). Literally thousands of people have thus had the opportunity to hear first-rate live musical performances of this marvelous music.

While there may not be an abundance of recordings, there's a fair range of interpretations to choose from, on both period and modern instruments; there's one version without Part III, and another in German translation. Currently, the top favorites for complete recordings appear to be Robert King for "period" (Hyperion) and John Nelson for "modern" (Virgin).

Now here's this wonderful addition to the roster from Peter Neumann and his Collegium Cartusianum and Cologne Chamber Chorus. For some time now I've felt that Neumann is one of the best Handel conductors around, and that his recordings hold up better than those by some more renowned (and flashier) interpreters. His fine series of Handel oratorios for MDG is marred only by a few instances of under-cast solo roles, particularly countertenors.

No such problems here. Indeed, the first thing that strikes you about this performance is how consistently beautifully sung and played it is. The trio of "Allegro" soloists - soprano Julia Doyle, tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass Andreas Wolf - are individually excellent, and make a well-matched team. The palm however goes to the sole "Penseroso" singer, soprano Maria Keohane, whose contributions are truly ravishing. The period instrument orchestra and the chorus perform to the same high standard, no surprise to anyone who is familiar with Neumann's earlier recordings.

The second point in this set's favor is that for the first time in my experience, a conductor has successfully made the case for the complete work as a unified whole. Usually, we experience Part III as a bit of a musical letdown (as Jennens's text is inevitably less vivid than Milton's), to be tolerated for sake of the penultimate number, the sublime soprano/tenor duet As Steals the Morn, which generally eclipses even the ensuing chorus. Not so here. The duet - the only one in the whole piece - feels like an arrival at a destination seen in retrospect as inevitable, and the case for "Moderation" is reinforced by the surrounding numbers. How Neumann accomplishes this is his secret, but one factor seems to be tempos that are generally more... well, moderate than in other performances. Rather than viewing L'Allegro and Il Penseroso simply as polar opposites, Neumann makes us aware from the start that we are dealing with a continuum; it's less a matter of stark black vs. white than gradations ranging over many shades of gray in between. In his performance, each temperament already contains traces of its opposite. Part III consequently feels like a maturation, not an afterthought. For once, Handel's conception is actually validated.

No one performance of a work this multi-faceted can ever be definitive. But this one brings something new, and deeply satisfying, to the catalogue. Strongly recommended.
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