As themes for festival programming run, the pastoral strand chosen for this year's Proms falls in with the more vague of the species. Its relevance, though, has been sharply defined by the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the spasm of rural unrest that reminded town of country's existence. Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, an almost picaresque musical commentary on the pains of melancholy, the pleasures of mirth and the value of moderation, offers a sound message from the time of Turnip Townshend. The librettist calls on Il Moderato to "teach how blest are they Who nature's equal rules obey, Who safely steer two rocks between, And prudent keep the golden mean". The request, made before Progress and Reason became corrupt, shows few signs yet of being granted.
William Christie's eloquent performance of Handel's oratorio served to distract from thoughts of the wreckage caused by ignoring nature's rules. The veteran Handelian made a virtue of the sensual nature of Il Penseroso's music, achieving intimacy even in the vastness of the Albert Hall, and encouraging Les Arts Florissants to produce endlessly lyrical playing.
The orchestral work was so refined that even the least blemish assumed the coarsest demeanour. Handel on period instruments has travelled far since L'Allegro enjoyed its last Proms outing in 1988, an occasion memorable for the stresses and strains revealed in the solo writing. Christie's band had more than the measure of the score, with Glenn Borling mastering the fiendish trompe de chasse solo in the oratorio's first part, and the string ensemble beguiling throughout.
Beguiling ways were also engaged by the soloists, especially so Paul Agnew and Sophie Daneman. The lyric soprano had the finest material with which to work, with aria after aria matching the level of inspiration reached by Handel in Messiah. Her beautiful account of "Oft, on a plat of rising ground" earnt her an immediate "brava" from the conductor. Christie's moderate tempo in "But oh! Sad virgin" later challenged the singer's control of the aria's ornamentations, causing some disruption to her habitually seamless legato. But the partnership flourished again in "Hide me from day's garish eye" and the exquisite "Come, with gentle hand restrain".
Steely nerves and a voice of pristine purity served Tristan Hambleton well, helping the St Paul's chorister negotiate his three tricky songs, while Andrew Foster Williams did a robust job in the calming bass arias of Il Moderato. Paul Agnew's tenor voice, now darker in hue, was allied to a charismatic performance style that touched on everything from bel canto to shades of "The Laughing Policeman".
This Prom will be repeated today at 2pm on BBC Radio 3. Box office: 020-7589 8212. www.bbc.co.uk/promsReuse content