L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato
(Junge Kantorei’s private label)
Released in 2002.
Released in 2005.
Linda Perillo, Barbara Hannigan; sopranos
Knut Schoch; tenor
Stephan MacLeod; bass
Barockorchester Frankfurt (on period instruments)
Joachim Carlos Martini
2 CDs. Recorded in 2002.
This astonishing work, in which meet the minds of Handel, Milton, and Shakespeare (deftly arranged by Charles Jennens), is a timeless tone poem that breathes the very spirit of Plato, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Where exists anything that matches its sublime fusion of words, ‘secular’ sentiments, and music?
Listeners encountering the music for the first time in this performance would be forgiven for feeling that Handel’s achievement was slight and unworthy. This music requires exceptional qualities from its conductors and performers if it is to comes across with due force. It is not difficult music: it is the tone and pacing which test even the finest interpreters. Martini’s rendering is, frankly, a disgrace, with very few redeeming features.
What is transcendental in words and music he turns to dross and in desperate need of retouching. Handel ‘forgot’ to provide an overture, so Martini steps in with Opus 6 No. 1, with prominent oboes and cadenzas divided between solo cello and violin. The third movement, an adagio, leads jarringly into Handel’s intended opening number. Knut Schoch (tenor) lacks confidence, and though the two sopranos sing with greater conviction, their injudicious decoration ruins many of Handel’s carefully constrained effects. An instance of this poor judgment occurs at the end of “Come, but keep thy wonted state” where finishing on the octave above the note specified destroys the mood of asceticism. The chorus “Join with thee” lacks any “calm peace and quiet” because the sound is too lumpenly loud.
Martini’s tempos are uneven: for Handel’s presto we get an andante; for his andante Martini substitutes allegro. Getting the pace right in this work unlocks its pent up force. Getting the pace wrong, as here, destroys its unity and cripples the superlative artistry with which it is limned. Martini ignores the composer’s instructions at whim, as in the drastic shortening of the da capo for “Sweet bird”. Given the strange flattening of the trills in the voice and a wayward flute ad lib passage, this truncation is just as well.
Martini makes no sense of the long succession of introspective numbers, and fails to bring off the glorious hunt air “Mirth, admit me of thy crew”. Stephan MacLeod’s bass has a curious quivering, unsure quality so that the air is not gutsy. “Far from all resort of Mirth” is too frolicsome for the contemplative mood, the pizzicatos in “Oft on a plat” lack the desired effect of a curfew bell – the speed is too fast – and the ploughman in “Let me wander not unseen” was clearly working at-the-double, if Martini’s tempo is to be our guide. We get the bass version of the B section of “Straight mine eye” in “Mountains, on whose barren breast”, but the da capo is ditched. In “Or let the merry bells” the celeste goes berserk, and the noise it makes is insufferable. What does a celeste have to do with Handel’s wonderful final chorus to Part 1? Ask Martini, because Handel will be too busy with rotational internment.
Part 2 opens, in Martini’s arrangement, with Opus 6. No. 3, without oboes, the larghetto followed by the polonaise (only one repeat, mind you), and then the allegro with both repeats. “Sometimes let gorgeous Tragedy” is in the B minor version, with its carefully judged imitative writing fragmented by a soprano who cannot express the mood through the musical phrasing…
Your reviewer hopes that you understand by now that this recording is a travesty of Handel’s noble intentions. He is reluctant to continue to give space to Martini’s desecration of matchless music. Here is a list of just some of the further objections to this recording:
- Intrusion of the organ before it gets its proper cue in “There let the pealing organ blow”;
- Crass interpretation of Handel’s ad lib organ bars in the chorus;
- Addition of a rampant celeste (no kidding) in the chorus “Populous cities please us then”;
- A chorus poor in articulation of the words and mood characterisation;
- Singular lack of spiritual resignation in “May at last my weary age” – taken far too fast;
- The soprano’s substitution of her own cadence for Handel’s in the closing bars of “To something like prophetic strain”;
- The solo soprano entry specified by Handel at the beginning of “These pleasures, Melancholy, give” is cut (it is);
- At the beginning of part 3, the odd inclusion of the B flat version of Opus 7. No. 1, of which Stanley Sadie writes “the organ and orchestra version sits unnaturally on the piece”, and how right he is on the basis of this performance;
- The bangs, booms, interruptions, and other extraneous noises.
Points in the recording’s favour:
- “But, oh! Sad virgin” is included and performed ‘straight’ (the recording receives 2 points for this);
- Handel’s finest duet “As steals the morn” – set to Jennens’s version of text from Shakespeare’s The Tempest – works satisfactorily;
- The orchestra’s sound and articulation is fine; the players have done what was asked of them, presumably.
However cheap it may be when presumably Naxos reissues it in a few years time, this recording is not recommended under any circumstances. Oh, the shame of it!
© Les Robarts - January 2003
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