One of the best ideas Handel and his colleagues ever had was to make an oratorio out of John Milton's verse--specifically, of Milton's "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" ("The Happy Man" and "The Pensive Man"), with the libretto cutting back and forth between the two poems to make a sort of dialogue, and with an added conclusion titled "Il Moderato" ("The Moderate Man"). The resulting work has never been as famous as Messiah
, but it has always been a special favorite of Handel lovers. The King's Consort made a fine recording of L'Allegro
in 1999; the selling point of the present version (which appeared almost exactly one year later) is the cast of soloists, which includes soprano Lynne Dawson and countertenor David Daniels, both genuine Baroque superstars, and tenor Ian Bostridge, current king of the art song. All three are very good indeed (as is bass Alastair Miles), with Bostridge in particularly fine form. You wouldn't think anyone could outdo the King's Consort's extraordinary Paul Agnew, but Bostridge does: every vocal color is apt, every word is completely clear. Interestingly, the aria everyone looks forward to, "Sweet Bird," goes not to Dawson but to her younger colleague Christine Brandes. The coloratura holds no problems for Brandes, though she sounds as if she's having to work harder than does Lorna Anderson for the King's Consort (to say nothing of the divine Miss Emma).
The Ensemble Orchestral de Paris is a modern-instrument group seemingly doing an imitation of period instruments, and they very nearly succeed. (It's the smooth, brassy trumpets that give them away.) The players have obviously learned something from their period-instrument colleagues: the sound is nice and lean, balance problems are minor, and the flute soloist in "Sweet Bird" does a fair imitation of an old flauto traverso. John Nelson's tempos are often very quick, yet nothing seems rushed; indeed, thanks to Nelson's good judgment and the skill of his soloists, the fast tempos make the music seem like heightened speech. If your shelves and/or wallet can handle only one L'Allegro, the King's Consort would be a better choice at the moment, but real Handel lovers--and fans of Daniels, Dawson, and Bostridge--won't want to miss this. --Matthew Westphal