Some might smile seraphically at the prospect of more Handel during the holiday season, others might vituperate cholerically at yet more Handel, but the combined forces of the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra and Harvard University Choir under the baton of distinguished early-music specialist Nicholas McGegan, OBE (currently music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) brought a sweet compromise—more Handel but not the usual suspects—to the precincts of Sanders Theater Sunday night: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Handel’s 1740 “pastoral ode” after John Milton’s two separate poems from 1632, L’allegro (the merry one) and Il Penseroso (the thoughtful, or melancholic, one), with a third poem added by Handel’s friend and librettist Charles Jennens to apply an Enlightenment gloss of reason to the dichotomous humors and come to a happy medium.
Jennens’s most brilliant stroke was to combine Milton’s two poems into a single text that alternates passages from each, creating both a sophisticated philosophical dialogue and a dramatic structure for the work as a whole, with most of his own additions (he also cut and somewhat simplified Milton’s language for purposes of sung clarity) for the final part. Handel’s music underwent numerous revisions, including alternate versions of individual numbers that vary length and the voice to be used. As a result there are numerous editions of L’Allegro that invite further reworkings by conductors. McGegan used his own version, created for a performance with Northern Sinfonia (now Royal Northern Sinfonia) in Gateshead, England. McGegan scrapped most of Il Moderato, leaving only one number (the work’s only duet) tucked into the second part of the score, and further shortened the whole; as it is, it fully occupied an evening’s concert.
This music finds Handel in top form, full of scrumptious melodies and inventive scoring. Instead of assigning individual characters to the soloists, he relied on the music alone to convey the sometimes direct and sometimes oblique colloquy of mirth and sobriety. Milton’s drily witty verses were set to sparkling orchestral rhythms and occasional dashes of color—there were brilliant solo turns for flauto transverso in imitation of a nightingale (marvelously rendered by Sarah Paysnick), hunting horn (ditto by Elisabeth Axtell), and carillon (Thomas Sheehan, though this part does not appear in the 1859 Breitkopf & Härtel edition of the score, the scalar passages being there assigned to the strings). The vocal soloists, sopranos Amanda Forsythe and Sherezade Panathaki (the latter’s part being more of a mezzo and encompassing numbers Handel indicated as for alto), tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Sumner Thompson, were all first-rate except in the matter of diction, which was sometimes excellent and sometimes not, which occasionally made them hard to follow (even in English!) if one took one’s nose out of the text for a while. However, they were all top-notch in their emotional characterizations, ranging deftly from manic to depressive. In one number (if memory serves, it was “But oh! sad virgin” in part two) there is a remarkable solo for cello, bursting seemingly out of nowhere but becoming a structural ingredient in the accompaniment taken up by all the instruments, for which principal cellist and HBCO director Phoebe Carrai pulled out a five-string cello. Something seemed to have gone wrong with it, sadly, maybe a slipped string, causing intonation to go pear-shaped and some fingerwork to go awry as well. A pity, as when she was using her regular instrument her playing was tight and communicative.
The choir sang brightly and clearly; there is rather less use of chorus in L’Allegro than in Handel’s oratorios, and Handel made the somewhat strange esthetic decision not to employ his soloists in trios or quartets. McGegan proved a sprightly, kinetic conductor, bringing out crisp articulations, bouncing rhythms and precise choral articulation (building on Edward Elwyn Jones’s preparation). Without encrustations of tradition to overcome, here was Handel for the rest of us.