That a choral ode without a plot – a mere debate on how to live - should be as dramatic as L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is one of the miracles of Handel’s art.
He and his librettist Charles Jennens were on the verge of writing Messiah when they decided to make this setting of Milton’s text, and for the opening concert in this year’s Lufthansa Festival Paul McCreesh decided to ignore later accretions and go back to the work’s pristine form, including a boy treble to make the shape of the debate even clearer.
Not that it wasn’t clear as tenor Jeremy Ovenden (L’Allegro) launched into the first aria – ‘Hence, loathed Melancholy’ – to be answered by soprano Gillian Webster (il Penseroso) – ‘Hence, vain deluding Joys’. Ovenden dramatized to the hilt the things his character wanted to elude, while Webster gave her visions a piercing clarity. The choruses were warm and vibrant and the orchestral sound radiantly transparent, as McCreesh varied the tempi to create a very English impression of changing weather. For here Handel becomes a nature poet, conjuring up winter and spring, the hunt and the harvest, and each time with the vividness of a Samuel Palmer painting.
This performance, which was broadcast on Radio 3, had some breath-taking moments. Ashley Riches’ bass was so coruscatingly powerful that he made even Richard Bayliss’s immaculate horn sound feminine, while the antiphonal duet between Webster and flautist Katy Bircher allowed the exquisite ‘Sweet bird’ aria to create a bewitching effect. But what set off the excellence of these adults was the astonishing singing of Laurence Kilsby, who is a treble like no other. His sound was rich and even, and it gained in beauty the higher he went; projecting like a professional, he turned the carillon of ‘Let the merry bells ring round’ into something almost Mozartian. The resolution of the debate, as Ovenden and Webster sang their duet in praise of moderation and the golden mean, set the seal on a golden evening.
This starry annual feast of the Baroque continues with events focusing on music and nature, with a concert of Purcell’s music in Westminster Abbey being the highlight. Yet its future is in the balance, as Lufthansa has very suddenly pulled out. An urgent search is on for new sponsors: this festival performs a unique function in British musical life, and it should not be allowed to die.