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A Sweet Treat for the Eyes and Ears, Blissful Baroque Comes to Boston

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY Season Premiere at Symphony Hall October 26


On Sunday October 26, the Handel and Haydn Society, under the direction of Christopher Hogwood, presented the second of two performances of their season opener, Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato. This 1740 work combines excerpts from two Milton poems, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, with original poetry by Handel's librettist Charles Jennens, the Il Moderato, set to what is essentially orchestral accompaniment.

Two concerto grossos serve as overtures to the first and second parts, the D minor, Op. 6 No. 10 and the G major, Op. 6 No. 1 respectively. The exceptional soloists gave performances worthy of Hogwood's illustrious direction, perhaps even of Milton himself. Especially notable were sopranos Sharon Baker and Lisa Saffer, whose powerful voices captured both the light, lilting passages of L'Allegro and the "grave music," as Handel termed it, of Il Penseroso. Christine Brandes, also soprano, however, sounded a bit too bright and overharsh at times. Tenor Alan Bennett and bass David Thomas also demonstrated impressive talent and musical sensitivity.

Both the soprano and bass parts contain a great deal of extremely demanding coloratura, vocal play and lengthy runs, reminiscent of the earliest tenor and bass airs in Part I of Handel's Messiah. These passages, like nearly all of the piece, were executed masterfully. Saffer in particular seemed the very bird described by her lines, "Sweet bird,.../ Most musical, most melancholy,/ Thee, chantress of the woods among,/ I woo to hear thy even song." Saffer's song floated through incredible trills and arpeggios which spanned several octaves without the slightest hint of effort. The choir, though little utilized in Handel's score, contributed a flawless, rich background for the soloists in music which also reminded one strongly of certain choruses of Messiah.

L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato is composed of three parts. The first and second are interspersed excerpts from L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, chosen and arranged, scholars now believe, by a friend and colloborator of Handel's, James Harris. L'Allegro is, as the title suggests, full of bright, youthful phrasing and imagery. Hymen is invoked and the praise of "bustling cities" sung. Il Penseroso, on the other hand, is filled with the language of age, of cloisters, weariness and Heaven. The speaker plans to enter "a peaceful hermitage" where he hopes to sit and reflect at the end of life. The third part is based on Jennens' contribution, Il Moderato, a moralizing tirade praising "Moderation, grace divine," to the detriment of "headlong Passion"--whom we assume can be only the joyful, spirited L'Allegro character. Il Penseroso, meanwhile, is characterized by Jennens as "deeply lifeless statues seeming/ Ever musing, moping, dreaming."

The librettist exhorts us, too, to "restrain those who fondly court their bane," and scolds those spending their lives "In frantic mirth and childish play/ In dance, and revels night and day..." The music during this mercifully short third section is much slower, perhaps taking its cue from Jennens' admonition that we "Keep...still the same in look and gait/ Easy, cheerful and sedate." This final section is certainly sedate, almost verging even on morose, culminating in the final couplet of the work: a grandiose choral motto, "Thy pleasures, Moderation, give/ In them alone we truly live." Moderation is not quite so enchanting a subject as either the joie de vivre of L'Allegro or the melancholic beauty of Il Penseroso. Nor could any claim that Jennens' verse stands quite equal to the Milton it seeks to reprove. Though the music is still lovely, the final reprimand of Il Moderato seems hardly the proper note on which to end a work largely hymning youthful exuberance and the contemplative life.

The Handel and Haydn Society, self-styled "America's Premier Chorus and Period Orchestra," features many interesting baroque instruments, several of which shone in solos in L'Allegro. A baroque flute, for example, enjoyed a lovely solo and interchange with Saffer in Part I, marred only by slight stumbling in the first few bars. The instrument, though held and played like a modern flute, is of black enamel, and considerably wider in diameter. Also fascinating were the horns, ancestors to the modern French horn, which had no stops and could only be played in the primary overtone series, manipulated by the musician through aperture control alone. The trumpets, which had no stops but recorder-like openings for pitch changes, had several beautiful fanfares in the L'Allegro passages of Parts I and II.

A muted-red harpsichord held a central position, both musically and physically, upon the stage. A small carillon played arpeggios to accompany L'Allegro's "O let the merry bells ring round," near the end of Part I. The bells were beautiful, but unfortunately rather too loud and bright, and overpowered the richer tones of Brandes. Very effectively used, by contrast, were the cello solos which broke up the different airs and recitatives of Part II, and which twice exchanged echoing dialogue with a warbling Saffer. The cellos, too, seemed not to be standard, modern cellos, but rather like those of Handel's time, having a much thinner, more delicate sound. Most of the strings played their instruments in the baroque style, holding their bows partway up the dowel instead of by the frog, as is the modern method.

The concert was truly a visual as well as an aural treat. Symphony Hall, of course, was at its gilded rococo best, and nearly filled with a largely elderly audience. Rich blue purple velvet and white tie tuxes dominated the stage in both the orchestra and choir, providing a beautiful setting for the soloists' brocades, sequins, taffeta and diamonds. Nor did the non-musical excitement end there. A brief intermission provided opportunity to eavesdrop on the gossip of the very nattiest of the old Boston families or enjoy a cigar or rose in the lounge.

Lovers of baroque music are encouraged to attend the Handel and Haydn Society's future offerings at Symphony Hall, including the second and third installments of their annual Handel vocal works series, this year Messiah in early December and Julius Caesar in late March. Other season highlights include Bach's Christmas Oratorio and a collaboration with jazz great Dave Brubeck and his sons.

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