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When Handel composed this neglected masterwork he turned Milton’s text (with the help of Charles Jennens and James Harris) into a philosophical entertainment for the Age of Enlightenment, deliberately designed to improve people: no wonder, then, that we rarely hear it today in our celebrity- obsessed world of instant gratification. The music is divine, whether or not one finds worth in the text, and Paul McCreesh’s talent for contextualisation ensures that we can hear it all to perfection in the earliest version of 1740 with concerti grossi op.6 nos. 1 and 3 and organ concerto op.7 no.1, the latter played with irrepressible panache by William Whitehead on the William Drake organ (2004) of St Paul’s, Deptford, revelling in its brilliant baroque colours. The Handel House chamber organ appears in the oratorio, supporting an orchestra playing at the top of its game. The singing, from all soloists and chorus, has tremendous character and clarity, fizzing with excitement or languishing in lovely legato, and soprano Gillian Webster carries all before her with grace, easy elegance, and a ravishing range of vocal colour. McCreesh finds all the expressive opportunities in a blissful production, at times breathtakingly beautiful.

Mark Morris’s acclaimed dance interpretation travels the globe and, at last, we may all own it on DVD. It is a visu- ally stunning, richly symbolic evocation of baroque iconography, statuary and manners, delivered by 24 dancers with the simplicity that truly evinces ‘art that conceals art’ and with the absolute minimum of staging. Once seen, can one ever hear this music again without finding in the mind’s eye his exquisite, completely organic choreography? Jane Glover evokes much light and shade from high-calorie musicians who work hard to find the right balance of force and delicacy and, for the most part, succeed. This is a complete aesthetic delight, but I long to marry McCreesh’s lean sound to Morris’s dance, creating an absolute ideal probably only possible in the heaven to which Jennens made Milton’s words aspire.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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