An anthology of poetry in motion

Rob Cowan on the Compact Collection
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The Independent Culture

If you're on the look-out for a follow-up to Messiah, then L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato should happily fit the bill. Here we have prime-cut Handel built around contrasts between extrovert and introvert temperaments, and with a finale that attempts to blend the two. Composed in just three weeks during the cruelly cold winter of 1740 (the Thames was frozen over and theatres closed), L'Allegro alternates in mood with a speed and quick-wittedness that modern listeners should find irresistible. There is no discernible story, and no obvious religious subtext, just poetry (Milton was Handel's prompting inspiration) and two-hours' worth of consistently divine music.

If you're on the look-out for a follow-up to Messiah, then L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato should happily fit the bill. Here we have prime-cut Handel built around contrasts between extrovert and introvert temperaments, and with a finale that attempts to blend the two. Composed in just three weeks during the cruelly cold winter of 1740 (the Thames was frozen over and theatres closed), L'Allegro alternates in mood with a speed and quick-wittedness that modern listeners should find irresistible. There is no discernible story, and no obvious religious subtext, just poetry (Milton was Handel's prompting inspiration) and two-hours' worth of consistently divine music.

John Nelson's new Virgin recording with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris fully realises L'Allegro's high level of invention, musical scene-painting and driving dance rhythms, and his singers are about as good as you're likely to get.

Ian Bostridge comes into immediate focus with "Hence, loathed Melancholy" (the general scheme is to follow two or three reflective numbers with a similar helping of faster ones), then, a few tracks later, relishes "Haste thee nymph" with "laughter holding both his sides" (disc 1, track 5). There are some extraordinarily evocative passages, such as the distant curfew (low pizzicatos and harpsichord) that haunts Christine Brandes in "Oft on a plat of rising ground" (track 14) and the joyously chiming carillon that helps frame Lynn Dawson's "Or let the merry bells ring round" (track 19).

You'd be hard pressed to find a more beautiful baroque aria than "Hide me from the Day's garish eye", ravishingly sung by David Daniels (disc 2, track 7), or a more entrancing duet than "As steals the morn upon the night" (Dawson and Bostridge, track 20). The excellent bass soloist is Alastair Miles, and the chorus, the Bach Choir. For me, it's definitely the best Handel set of the year; fabulous music given with maximum conviction, and vividly recorded.

And the best lieder CDs? Two new releases immediately enter the running. The first is a live 1979 Salzburg Festival Schubert recital by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus, a meeting of like minds that investigates every nook and cranny in some of Schubert's most searching songs, including "Nachtstück", "Totengräbers Heimweh" and "Prometheus".

Hugo Wolf's "Prometheus" is a harder-edged god than Schubert's, angrier and more strongly built. He thunders in style from my second choice, an all-Wolf recital from Hans Hotter and Gerald Moore, once famous as an LP and now reissued by Testament (one of three new Hotter lieder albums on the same label) with sundry tracks added. Hotter's Wotan-like declamations are leavened by the unique inwardness that he brings to, say, the three Michelangelo-lieder or Harfenspieler.

For all its richness and volume, Hotter's baritone is an oddly fragile phenomenon, a formidable force stooping to commune with the more tender aspects of Wolf's muse. Moore's accompaniments are both intelligent and unobtrusive, whereas Demus's for Fischer Dieskau are inspirational. Both programmes are captured in excellent sound.

Handel: 'L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato', Bostridge, Daniels, etc Nelson - Virgin Classics VCD5 45417 2 (two discs)

Schubert: Fischer-Dieskau, Demus - Orfeo/Chandos C529 001B

Wolf: Hotter, Moore - Testament SBT 1197

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