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L'Allegro, Il Penseroso Ed Il Moderato
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After the success of Alexander's Feast, a setting of the much admired ode by John Dryden, it was wondered: would the result be greater still if Handel could be persuaded to set the words of a poet even greater than Dryden? Such were the thoughts of an important group of Handel's friends centred around the philosopher James Harris and including Charles Jennens (later the librettist of Messiah) and the Fourth Earl of Shaftesbury. It was under their influence that Handel came to set the poetry of John Milton, first in L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and later in the oratorio Samson. Jennens helped to prepare the libretto for L'Allegro, the first two parts of which are adapted from Milton's two complementary poems, L'Allegro ('The Merry Man') and Il Penseroso ('The Thoughtful Man'), respectively celebrating the different joys of two opposed personalities. The initial idea of interweaving lines from the two poems to make a text for musical setting actually came from James Harris, who also provided the first draft of the libretto. By 19 January 1740 the libretto was finished, and with Handel's enthusiasm and speed in writing the first performance took place on 27 February! There is no definitive version of the work as Handel made many changes over time. However, the intention of this perfomance is to retain the freshness of Handel's original vision with the advantage of the best of his second thoughts.
GRAMOPHONE RECORDING OF THE MONTH GRAMOPHONE CRITICS' CHOICE TIMBRE DE PLATINE (OPERA INTERNATIONAL, FRANCE) CLASSIC FM MAGAZINE BEST OF THE MONTH 'One of Handel's loveliest English works, full of the pastoral delights of Acis and Galatea and some of his most sublime vocal inspirations' (The Sunday Times) 'L'Allegro would with little doubt be one of my desert island pieces, all the most so after listening to this first truly complete recording of Handel's delectable pastotal ode. Enjoy!' (Gramophone) 'This delightful set … must surely rank as one of the discs of the year' (The Scotsman) 'Unfailingly excellent' (BBC Music Magazine) 'Robert King's affection for the work shines out from every number' (Classic CD) 'This pure Baroque beauty is a dramatic piece rich in short, tuneful airs, each more beautiful than the last. Few Handel vocal works give me such enduring pleasure' (Classic FM Magazine) 'A first rate work ... This is easily one of the best of the year and perhaps the best Handel recording of 1999' --(Goldberg)
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I own both the Gardiner performance (Erato) from the 80's and now this newer performance by King (Hyperion) from the 90's, and the King routs Gardiner. Not only does this newer recording benefit from better sound, but the solo singing is uniformly better, being informed by more recent scholarship. In addition, some of the solos on the Gardiner set are just weak, such as those of the boy soprano, who has almost no voice at all, thus ruining his part completely. On Hyperion's excellent set, in contrast, all of these problems are completely avoided; all the solo parts are taken by adult singers, who do both Milton and Handel grand, making this lovely poetry completely audible. King's orchestra and chorus are also the equal of Gardiner's well-known, excellent ensemble, and they perform the later edition of this delightful music which Handel prepared about a year or two after the initial performances, thus adding almost twice as much as Gardiner performs in his version of Handel's original version. In short, haste thee, and purchase King's period instrument triumph of Handel's L' Allegro and bring out smiles, jollity, and rejoicing all around.