*L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Ed Il Moderato* is one of Handel's most unjustly neglected masterpieces. The reasons for its relative obscurity are not difficult to fathom: It falls into the rather ill-defined category of "Ode," and its concluding segment (Part III) is well below the rest in inspiration--largely because the text here is doggerel by Newburgh Hamilton, whereas the poetry set in Parts I and II is by John Milton (as rearranged by Hamilton). Great poetry always elicited the best from Handel, and at least the first two segments of this work represent Handel's genius at full stretch. The way Handel depicts Milton's imagery--particularly the pastoral scenes--anticipates similar text-painting in Haydn's *Creation* and *Seasons.* In fact, the latter work is in places explicitly modeled on *L'Allegro*: both have "laughing" choruses, merry dancing followed by a curfew call, tolling bells, avian songsters of various species, hounds and horns, etc.
Not surprisingly, there have been relatively few recordings and the best remain those which delete Part III and thereby bring the work (satisfyingly, in my estimation) in line with Milton's original conception, which contrasted, in somewhat angular fashion, two divergent worldviews: the mirthful-secular and the melancholy-religious. What about the optimistically religious, you might ask? No part of Milton's scheme; and thus to fit the sensibilities of a more "enlightened" age, Hamilton felt obliged to reconcile Milton's opposed types in a higher synthesis. Handel was far less interested in comfortable compromise than in dramatic conflict, and so it's no wonder that his invention began to fail him in Part III. Unfortunately, neither of the two-part versions is readily available: A superbly sung performance under Frederic Waldman, on an ancient American Decca LP has never (to my knowledge) been reissued; and a somewhat staid, but more extravagantly presented account under Sir David Wilcocks, though reissued on CD, was never distributed in the USA and is now probably deleted.
But if you are a Handel enthusiast you must have a recording of this piece, if only for the sublime beauty of the authentically Miltonian sections. Though I have not heard the more recent modern-instrument version conducted by John Nelson, Gardiner's recording from the early 1980's has many virtues, and will not disappoint. As usual, the English Baroque Soloists provide light-textured and rhythmically incisive playing, and the Monteverdi choir is its wonted hyper-articulate self. Gardiner is alive not only to the rough-and-ready jollity of L'Allegro but even more perhaps to the pensive expostulations of his religious counterpart (alter ego?). One magical moment occurs when Gardiner introduces a boy soprano, unexpectedly, for "O let the merry bells ring round." His other soloists sound pallid compared to the sturdy oratorio singers featured on the older versions by Waldman (who had John McCollum and Adele Addison) and Wilcocks (who had Peter Pears). One wants more scalp-tingling eloquence in "Hide me from day's garish eye" (one of Handel's transcendent moments) and perhaps more rambustiousness in "Haste thee, Nymph"/"Come and trip it as you go" than Gardiner provides. Gardiner's direction can also seem a wee bit fussy at times--as if he and his singers were treading on long-preseved, and therefore particularly fragile, eggshells.
Whatever one's reservations, this recording of L'Allegro affords a golden opportunity to hear an unjustly neglected work in a complete (except for one aria), well-sung, often exquisitely played, and musicologically sound version. The recording is typical of what Erato was producing at the time--somewhat dry and lacking in amplitude but clearly focused and well balanced. Recommended; particularly in the absence of Waldman and Wilcocks.
Postscript (2010): I have finally gotten around to hearing the John Nelson recording on Virgin Classics, and am happy to report that there *is* a more than adequate successor to Waldman and Wilcocks--albeit including the less-than-inspired Third Part ("Il Moderato"). Nelson's soloists (Brandes/Dawson/Daniels/Bostridge/Miles) are everything one could have hoped for. Daniels, in particular, impresses with his unusually rich, mellifluous countertenor; and Bostridge brings an accomplished lieder singer's sensibilities to the sensitive pointing of Milton's glorious tropes. Nelson's modern-instrument ensemble really digs in, providing almost embarrassingly lush textures (for an age dominated by puritanical early-music sensibilities) and everywhere the liveliest rhythmic articulation. A winner on every count--even if in a nostalgic, Penseroso-esque mood I might still hanker for the gorgeous voices of McCollum and Addison on the wonderful old Waldman recording (Addison's hushed rapture in "Hide me from day's garish eye" can still cause my scalp to tingle).