Saturday 11 May 2013

Handel's L'Allegro at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh at St Johns Smith Square, Image credit Jonathan Rose
image credit Jonathan Rose
Somewhat like London buses, Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has made two London appearances in short succession after an absence of a number of years. Following on from the performance of the work as the close of the London Handel Festival (see my review), the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music opened this year with a performance of L'Allegro given by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players at St John's Smith Square on Friday 10 May 2013 with soloists Gillian Webster, Laurence Kilsby, Jeremy Ovenden and Ashley Riches.

Gabrieli Consort and Players  at St Johns Smith Square, Image credit Jonathan Rose
image credit Jonathan Rose
Like Laurence Cummings at the London Handel Festival, McCreesh chose to solve L'Allegro's textual problems by going back to Handel's original version, first premiered in 1740. Following on from this premiere, Handel would continue to tinker with the piece, adjusting it to the various forces available as was his wont. But also part of the tinkering seems to have been a dissatisfaction with theil Moderato. Handel adjusted this rather a lot and even dropped it entirely. Handel's revisions to his works are rarely complete improvements, and Paul McCreesh made the point in the programme that though by choosing the original version we lose some delightful music, we also gain the tautest and most vivid version of the work. One area where McCreesh returned even closer to the premiere was to use a treble, Laurence Kilsby, as Handel did rather than a second soprano, thus having a clear division between il Penseroso (soprano soloist) and l'Allegro (three male soloists, treble, tenor and bass). I did wonder whether the three male voices were intended in some way to reflect the three ages of man (youth, mature vigour, and old age), though at this performance there was no hint of old age in Ashley Riches' performance, I hasten to add.
concluding section, Charles Jennens'

McCreesh opened with two movements from Handel's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6 No. 1, the work which Handel opened his programme. Using around 30 musicians in total we had a good rich sound filling St. John's Smith Square. The two concerto grosso movements had a nice crisp bounce to them, and with the four cellos and two basses strung out across the stage behind the upper strings, a nice strong bass line to them.

Some lovely dark textures in the orchestra set off Jeremy Ovenden's tenor quite brilliantly in the opening accompagnato. Ovenden has quite a bright voice, with a vivid way with the words. Some of McCreesh's speeds were quite lively, but Ovenden was nicely adept at the fast passagework. One interesting point about the casting of this role, it was first sung by John Beard the tenor who also created the title roles in Handel's Samson and Jephtha, so a nice degree of robustness is to be expected. Ovenden brought out all the words in the tongue twister which is Haste thee, nymph, including the famous laughing passage, which he caught delightfully.  But showed himself capable of some lovely, fine-toned singing in Let me wander not unseen.

Treble Laurence Kilsby sing with a remarkably assured stage manner, and firm bright tones to which he brought a remarkable degree of richness. He had a very secure technique, bringing charm and great sophistication to his performances. The celeste in Or let the merry bells complemented his singing nicely without overwhelming.

Bass Ashley Riches had to wait until the latter half of part one before his first solo, but it was worth the wait. Riches has a lovely dark voice which he used with great flexibility, its full resonance being complemented by the stunning natural horn solo in his hunting aria. Riches was equally vivid in part two with Populous Cities.  It is the bass soloists who bears the main responsibility in part three, Il Moderato and here Riches followed a robustly resonant accompagnato with a pair of nicely shaped arias.

L'Allegro was soprano Gillian Webster, singing with clarity and nice warm tone, clearly highly involved with her music and projecting the words and character in inimitable manner. She gave us some moments of really fine singing without appearing fussy and over-precise, and there was a warm to her manner which came over at all times. The highlight, was of course, Sweet Bird, where she duetted brilliantly with the lovely solo flute placed up in the balcony. Here Webster showed both charm and technical expertise, with a lovely trill. And then was complemented with a fine cello obliggato in But oh, sad virgin. In Hide me from Day's garish eye she fined her tone right down to a fabulous hush.

The final duet, As steals the morn, is one of those pieces which can always be relied upon to bring a smile to the face and here it did not disappoint. The opening ritornello featured some lovely, expressive duetting from the oboes and bassoons, which nicely counterpointed the duetting of Webster and Ovenden.

The chorus are not overly used in this work. But they gave us highly characterful accounts of such contributions as Come and trip it as you go, as well as some fine grained singing in the major choruses which conclude parts one and two.

The orchestra were on fine form, giving us not only some fine solo playing but providing firm and highly characterful accompaniment.

In fact, characterful is probably a good adjective to describe the whole performance. McCreesh clearly loves the work and got strongly expressive and vivid performances from all of his performers. This was the perfect opening to the festival, and St. John's Smith Square seems just the right size for the work, giving the performers and the music enough space to breath whilst not being too big, still allowing a feeling of intimacy.

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1 comment:

  1. By the way, does anyone know what Milton's was referring to in the line about 'Jonson's learned sock'!!


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