Music of the Baroque soars with Handel rarity

Handel’s music has become such an entrenched mainstay of both the concert hall and opera house in recent decades that it seems unlikely that there are any Handel masterworks yet to be discovered, even for this prolific a composer.

Kudos to Music of the Baroque for resurrecting a genuine Handel rarity, with L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato, winningly performed Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Neither oratorio nor sacred work, Handel’s work is a “pastoral ode,” setting Milton’s poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. The adaptation by Handel’s regular collaborator Charles Jennens draws excerpts from each poem, alternating the texts for vocal settings that contrast the two opposing temperaments—the first, quick and light-hearted, the second contemplative and melancholy. Reflecting the 18th-century’s avoidance of emotional extremes, Jennens felt compelled to add his own—considerably less elevated—-verses in a third part, Il Moderato, as part of a “Moral Design,” achieving a rather unconvincing equilibrium between Milton’s psychological polarities.

Scored for orchestra, four soloists and chorus, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato is one of Handel’s most charming and melodious scores. Sweet bird is the only occasionally extracted item, but the work offers several worthy arias and fine opportunities for each singer, often paired with an obbligato solo instrument.

In MOB’s first presentation of the work in three decades, Glover led a vital, engaging performance that had all the joy of fresh discovery with sterling contributions from the soloists and chorus.

Elizabeth Futral floated a spacious, freely expressive Sweet bird, the lilting aria a true partnership with Mary Stolper who provided wonderfully evocative avian flute solos. The soprano was also heard to fine account in an affecting Oft on a plat of rising ground and a lovely May at last my weary age.

Thomas Cooley proved a vividly characterful presence bringing great relish to his solo opportunities and pin-point clarity to his words. Haste thee, nymph was delightful with the tenor sailing through the laughing aria with infectious good humor that would banish anyone’s gloom.

At times Lisa Saffer was a bit too laid-back and generalized in expression, but she brought her long Baroque experience, bell-like tone and coloratura agility to her arias. Christopheren Nomura had less to do than the others, but skilfully deployed his firmly focused bass-baritone and showed daunting flexibility in a jaunty Mirth, admit me of thy crew.

Glover was at her finest, setting brisk and buoyant tempos. She also drew full-bodied yet strikingly terraced dynamic shading in choruses without ever sounding pedantic. William Jon Gray’s ensemble made the most of their opportunities in the spotlight.

The Music of the Baroque orchestra excelled both corporately and individually in their obbligato moments, including Stolper, hornist Jonathan Boen, violinist Sharon Polifrone and organist Mark Shuldiner.