Les Arts Florissants are joyful, contemplative, but far from moderate, in the Barbican Hall.
Written in 1740, when interest in his operas was waning and he was beginning to embrace other forms far more, Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato defies simple categorisation. It could not really be defined as either an oratorio, cantata or serenata, and in a programme note for the concert Alexandra Coghlan suggested that “Perhaps this explains the work’s comparative neglect: it’s harder to love what we cannot grasp or name”. After listening to this performance by Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie, it would certainly seem the most likely explanation for its relative obscurity as it would be impossible to blame the music, some of which is among the most expressive that the composer ever wrote.
The piece’s origins lie in an arrangement of Milton’s two poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ by the politician and grammarian James Harris, at the request of Handel’s regular collaborator, the librettist Charles Jennens. Harris interwove the two to create drama and tension between the personified characters ‘L’Allegro’, the joyful man, and ‘Il Penseroso’, the contemplative man. Thus, while the original poems simply follow one after the other, in Harris’ arrangement a ‘dialogue’ is set up between the two characters to give the impression of them arguing back and forth. This occupies the first two parts of Handel’s creation, but in an attempt to provide a synthesis to the differing viewpoints, Jennens, at the composer’s request, added a new poem, ‘Il Moderato’, the moderate man, to create a third and final part.
There is consequently no obvious plot, but this is perhaps what makes the work so successful in that it really is the expression of pure emotion. It never risks becoming two-dimensional because the basic ideas of cheer and reflection are not simply raked over again and again, but always explored in a variety of ways. For example, the air for L’Allegro, ‘Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee / Jest, and youthful jollity’, features laughing in both the solo tenor and chorus lines, in a tradition that was to continue through to Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and beyond. However, ‘Come and trip it as you go, / On the light fantastick toe’ that immediately follows, despite also being for L’Allegro and the chorus, sounds significantly more melancholic as it features some beautifully placed light sounding lines.
“…in Harris’ arrangement a ‘dialogue’ is set up between the two characters to give the impression of them arguing back and forth”
Handel also continues a long tradition of using instruments in an air that literally reflect, or are adept at producing the sound of, what is being sung about. For example, ‘Sweet bird, thou shun’st the noise of folly’ features a solo flute to imitate its song, while ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew, / To listen how the hounds and horn / Chearly rouze the slumb’ring morn’ includes a solo horn. Similarly, ‘Or let the merry bells ring round’ sees these imitated on the celeste, ‘There let the pealing organ blow’ gives plenty of space for that instrument to shine, while ‘Populous cities please me then’ features trumpets and a rousing chorus to capture the hustle and bustle of a metropolis.
Les Arts Florissants was positioned to the centre and right of the stage so that the soloists could sit on the left when not required. Each moved to the front of the orchestra to sing, and although this necessitated long walks ‘on’ and ‘off’ that occasionally felt clunky, overall it worked better than having all sat at the front because it meant our focus could always be on what really mattered. Towards the start the soprano singing Il Penseroso on the character’s initial appearance shot the tenor who had just sung L’Allegro’s first recitative a glance as if disgusted by the attitudes he had just proclaimed. Il Penseroso was always sung by soprano Rachel Redmond, while L’Allegro and Il Moderato were portrayed variously by tenor James Way, bass-baritone Sreten Manojlović, treble Leo Jemison and Redmond herself.
Way revealed a brilliantly bright and pleasing tenor, Manojlović brought a relative lightness of touch to his sound that always made it throughly musical, and Jemison, a soloist in the Trinity Boys Choir, tackled some extremely challenging music with great skill and success. Redmond shone throughout the evening but her air ‘Sweet bird, thou shun’st the noise of folly’ was an undoubted highlight by virtue of the precision, expression and beauty that she brought to this extended sing. William Christie often stepped away from his music stand to engage directly with the soloist which aided the sense of intimacy, while there were also a few moments of humour. For example, during ‘Mirth, admit me of thy crew’ horn soloist Glen Borling ‘whistled’ a few lines of a tune that, to my ear, sounded like ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
The third part, which introduces Il Moderato, featured some particularly moving moments including the duet ‘As steals the morn upon the night’ between Il Penseroso and the tenor L’Allegro, and the final chorus ‘Thy pleasures, Moderation, give’. The latter did not feel entirely subdued, but it was noticeable how the horns, trumpets and timpani that had featured so prominently elsewhere were absent, in keeping with the whole idea of moderation.
For details of all Les Arts Florissants’ recordings and upcoming events visit its website.
For details of all upcoming events at the Barbican visit its website.