Wednesday 17 April 2013

Handel's L'Allegro at the London Handel Festival

Elisabeth Duparc 'La Francesina' soprano soloist in premiere of Handel's L'Allegro
Elisabeth Duparc
'La Francesina'
soprano soloist in
premiere of Handel's
George Frideric Handel's oratorio L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was always intended to be a crowd pleaser, a role that it still occupies today. In late 1739 Handel informed Charles Jennens that he would not yet set the libretto that Jennens had sent him (it would eventually become Messiah). Instead for his 1740 season he planned to 'please the Town with something of a gayer Turn'. Instead of being miffed at having his own suggestion turned down, Jennens went into overdrive to organise something suitable for Handel to set. By suitable, Jennens and a number of Handel's other English friends would have meant something by one of the major English writers. Like Milton for instance.

Handel's English friends were keen for him to apply his genius not just to the Bible, but to English writers equal to his genius. He had set Dryden but Dryden was not a poet of the first water. Milton had come back into favour, a monument to him had been raised in Westminster Abbey in 1737. But suggestions that Handel might use Paradise Lost seem to have fallen on deaf ears (Handel was offered at least two libretto's based on Milton's work).

John Beard, tenor soloists in premiere of Handel's L'Allegro
John Beard, tenor soloists
in premiere of Handel's
Charles Jennens' friend James Harris had an idea for a scheme based on Milton's poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, interleaving the two so as to provide the sort of vivid contrasts which appealed to Handel. This worked, and Handel's new oratorio was set in motion. The text, however, was too short and after looking through his edition of Milton, Handel lighted upon At a solemn musick (nowadays known to us for Hubert Parry's musical setting). But this would not do, the sacred nature of the ode contrasting oddly with the secular nature of the first two parts of the oratorio. Jennens commented in a letter to Harris that 'It has no sort of connection with the other', so Jennens wrote a third part Il Moderato (The Moderate Man) as conclusion. This was how L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato was premiered by Handel in 1740 (with soloists including Elisabeth Duparc 'La Francesina' and John Beard). But soon afterwards Hand made changes, introducing Italian singers and Italian texts. He seems to have lost confidence in Il Moderato replacing it by his 1739 St Cecilia Ode.

For the London Handel Festival performance at St George's Church, Hanover Square, London on Tuesday 16 April 2013 (the final event of the 2013 festival), Lawrence Cummings conducted the London Handel Singers and Orchestra with soloists Rosemary Joshua, Anna Dennis, Stuart Jackson and George Humphreys. Cummings had reconstructed the form of the work from its premiere performances, so that we had the first two movements of Handel's  Concerto Grosso Opus 6 no. 1 as the overture to part one, the first two movements of Concerto Grosso Opus 6 no. 3 as the overture to part two, and Organ Concerto Opus 7 no. 1 between parts two and three. This latter was played by Cummings on the new organ at St. George's. The result was surprisingly satisfying without the patchwork effect that you might have expected.

Rosemary Joshua sang soprano 1 (the Elisabeth Duparc part), which meant that she sang all of the Il Penseroso texts. Whilst Anna Dennis, Stuart Jackson and George Humphreys shared L'Allegro between them.

Joshua's manner, pensive but vivid and strongly characterised, caught the piece well bringing out the elegant melancholy and the pathetic vein. Her voice had a slightly fragile character and her words were sometimes occluded. But from the beginning of 'Sweet Bird', she knocked away all doubts with her dazzling duetting with the solo flute as each sought to out-do the other in elaborate birdcall-inspired roulades. Elisabeth Duparc (Handel's original soprano) clearly excelled in such passages, Handel gave her two in L'Allegro and Joshua demonstrated her own poise, skill and charms in them. In part two a further air, this time with stunning cello obbligato, introduced further amazing bird imitations.

Anna Dennis had a richer toned voice than Joshua, providing a nice contrast. Dennis had a lovely feeling for line and legato, shaping the line beautifully and singing in clear, even tones with well projected words. She brought out the infectious joy in her air 'Mirth admit me to thy crew' and the lovely 'O let the merry bells ring round' which concluded part one. Though she and the chorus were completely upstaged by the bright tones of the celeste which has an obbligato role here.

Tenor Stuart Jackson was announced as recovering from a chest infection and his voice did not sound entirely relaxed.  But I would look forward to hearing him again when fully recovered because he displayed a strong engagement with the words and a knack of conveying them vividly.

Handel held back the bass soloist until part one is nearly over. George Humphreys did not disappoint when he finally did appear with his air with obbligatto horn (the text, of course, about hunting). Both singer and instrumentalist were wonderful and nicely balanced. Humphreys has a lovely resonant and even baritone voice, lyrical, easy and confidently projected. He made this air, and his air in part two 'Populous cities' notable moments.

I am not sure that Handel was quite as inspired by Jennens' Il Moderato text as by Milton. Despite Humphreys hard work in the opening section, and fine contributions from Joshua and Jackson, the music seemed only well made. Frankly, we were all simply waiting for the glorious duet 'As steals the Morn' which concludes this section. This was sung finely by Joshua and Jackson, with a lovely bassoon part (the instrument for once liberated from the music's bass line). This is an item which never fails to please.

The final chorus finally gave the excellent London Handel Chorus something meaty to perform, and they did not disappoint. The text of the oratorio is not naturally one requiring choruses, and mainly the chorus is called to appear in a supporting role. But their performance throughout the whole oratorio was confidently supporting and finely judged.

Cummings played the solo part in the Organ Concerto himself, which involved dashing upstairs to the console (and appearing there out of breath). The concerto segued directly into the opening of part three, which worked supremely well and in a very satisfying manner (but of course required Cummings to dash back down stairs again whilst the oratorio started without him). I was surprised at how well co-ordination worked between organ and orchestra, but then we were sitting upstairs directly by the organ, I would be interested to know how it sounded from the body of the church. Cummings playing was masterly, with a great use of the varieties of vivid colour available to him on the new organ.

Any concert in the festival at St George's Church has a character all of its own, the rather awkward nature of the audience seating in the pews, with gallery seats without a view, and the way that orchestra and chorus are squeezed into the area in and around the choir stalls, with the trumpets banished to beyond the altar rail. The obbligato horn and flute were similarly squeezed into the choir stalls and the soloists had to pick their way through the choir to get to their positions for each solo. All quite a delicate balance. But the performers seemed oblivious to any difficulties. Encouraged by Cummings' dynamic direction (he is a conductor who bounces up and down a lot), the performance had a vividness and charm which were well judged. All the solo instrumental contributions were finely played.

This was a fine conclusion two the 2013 London Handel Festival and I look forward to the 2014 festival.

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