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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Solomon, oratorio in 3 parts (HWV 67)

[I] Dominique Labelle (First Harlot, Queen), Claron McFadden (Queen of Sheba, Second Harlot), soprano; Tim Mead (Solomon), alto; William Kendall (Attendant), Michael Slattery (Zadok), tenor; Roderick Williams (Levite), bass
Winchester Cathedral Choir; FestspielOrchester Göttingen
Dir: Nicholas McGegan

rec: May 26, 2007 (live), Dresden, Frauenkirche
Carus - 83.242 (3 CDs) (© 2007) (2.36'41")

[II] Sarah Gritton (First Harlot, Queen), Carolyn Sampson (Queen of Sheba, Second Harlot), soprano; Sarah Connolly (Solomon), contralto; Mark Padmore (Attendant, Zadok), tenor; David Wilson-Johnson (Levite), bass
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Daniel Reuss

rec: May 2006, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901949.50 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (2.35'00")

When Handel started writing oratorios not that much changed: he still wrote in dramatic style, only the text was English, the subject mostly biblical and the performance not staged. There are exceptions, the most radical of them Messiah. Solomon is also different from most other oratorios in that it doesn't contain a real plot. It is generally characterised by Handel scholars as a series of scenes from the life of Solomon.

In the first act we hear about the inauguration of the temple which Solomon had built, and then he expresses his love for his wife - here just called 'Queen', the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt. The second act is the only really dramatic part, when two harlots both claim to be the mother of a child. Solomon's judgment leads to a celebration of his wisdom, a subject which returns in the last part. Here we hear about the visit of the Queen of Sheba whom Solomon shows the wealth of his kingdom and who is impressed by the splendour of the temple.

The oratorio was first performed in March 1749 under Handel's direction. He had a cast of Italian and English singers: Solomon was sung by a mezzosoprano and three of the four soprano roles by one singer. He also had extended his orchestra and had a choir which was probably larger than usual. Seven of the choruses are written in eight parts, mostly split into two opposing groups. As so often in Handel's oratorios the choirs have different roles: here there are choirs of Priests and choirs of Israelites. Apart from recitatives and arias there are some duets and a trio of the two harlots and Solomon.

Solomon contains some splendid music, for instance the chorus 'May no rash intruder' at the end of Act 1, the aria of the First Harlot, 'Can I see my infant gor'd' (Act 2) and the air of the Queen of Sheba, 'Will the sun forget to streak' in Act 3. But it didn't go down very well with the audiences. Oratorios were mostly seen as a moral uplift, as is expressed by one witness of a performance of Samson in 1743 writing that "this kind of entertainment must necessarily have some effect in correcting or moderating at least the levity of the age". It is from this perspective that the suggestive love scene in Act 1 may have been considered inappropriate.

At about the same time two recordings of Solomon were made, which are reveiwed here. McGegan's performance was recorded live in the Frauenkirche in Dresden as part of the International Handel Festival Göttingen, Reuss's recording is a studio production. This makes the two difficult to compare, in particular as the acoustical circumstances are strongly different. Especially problematic is the balance within the Winchester Cathedral Choir in McGegan's performance. In this choir the top part is sung by trebles, just as in Handel's time, but the advantage is pretty much erased by the fact that they are often overpowered by the lower voices. I am generally unimpressed by the recording technique of the Carus production: the volume of the recording is too low and too distant. In comparison Harmonia mundi's recording shows more presence and detail.

There are other differences: McGegan performs the score as Handel did, but Reuss has made some cuts: in Act 1 the air of Zadok, 'Indulge thy faith' and the preceding recitative are left out, and in Act 3 the air of the Levite, 'Pious king' is omitted. In addition the closing chorus, 'The name of the wicked' has been replaced by the double chorus 'Praise the Lord', which originally is set immediately after Zadok's air 'Golden columns' where he sings the praise of the temple. There this chorus makes sense as it urges to "praise the Lord with harp and tongue (...), let the loud Hosannahs rise" - just as it happens in the temple. Reuss's performance could have come close to being an ideal interpretation if Handel's score hadn't been messed around with.

Comparing the two interpretations I was generally disappointed by McGegan's performance. Apart from the problems in regard to recording technique I never felt really involved - in my ears this performance sounds lacklustre and bland. The overture sets the tone: there is a lack of contrast and dynamic shading, and the strings are pretty flat. In comparison the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is playing a lot better, very dynamic and colourful - just as we know this orchestra from so many recordings.

Although Handel had a mezzosoprano in the role of Solomon there is no real problem in using a male alto, but Tim Mead is not the right singer for this part. He has a beautiful voice, but too mellow and too weak - even though he tries to sound a little more powerful in the third act, his Solomon is a bit of a wally, and that is not how Handel has portrayed him. In the trio with the two harlots he is the weakest link, and that seems to me rather strange. Annoying is the vibrato which usually comes at the end of a phrase, which seems to me a technical shortcoming rather than an artistic decision. In comparison Sarah Connolly gives an impressive performance of this role. She uses vibrato more regularly, but it is not a quick, nervous kind of vibrato, and therefore much easier to swallow. Her diction is excellent and she sings her recitatives in a truly declamatory manner. She never has to force her voice in the highest regions, something Tim Mead is doing now and then.

Dominique Labelle isn't really convincing as Queen - she sounds a bit heavy, whereas Susan Gritton works younger, more girlish. Ms Labelle's cadenza at the end of the dacapo of the aria 'Bless'd the day' is a bit overdone. As the First Harlot she is much better, and her arias in the second act are really well done. Claron McFadden does equally well as the Second Harlot. As far as the performances of the two sopranos are concerned there is not that much to choose between these two recordings. But although the second act is the best part of McGegan's performance, there is still a lack of real drama here. This, and the fact that the three ladies are much better matches in Reuss's recording, makes the latter the winner here.

Michael Slattery and Mark Padmore both give good interpretations of the role of Zadok. Both deal well with the coloraturas, but overall Padmore is just a bit more balanced. Slattery tries to make dynamic differences in his coloraturas, which can only be applauded, but his fortes seem a bit out of control sometimes. He certainly has an interesting voice, though, and his diction is very good. I liked Roderick Williams in the small role of the Levite: he has a nice voice, a quiet and natural vibrato and delivers the text well. David Wilson-Johnson has a voice I just don't like very much, and I find him a bit too heavy, and he certainly could reduce his vibrato.

The RIAS Chamber Choir gives excellent performances throughout; it is really impressive how it deals with the various choruses it has to sing. The Winchester Cathedral Choir is a very fine choir in its own right, as I know from other recordings, but here it is the victim of the recording technique and therefore doesn't really make an impression, even though some choruses are well sung.

In the end it is the direction which makes the difference between these two performances. Reuss is more energetic and more theatrical, he has the overall most convincing tempi and if there is drama in this oratorio he is able to explore it. Therefore I prefer his recording, and that makes it all the more tragic that he hasn't performed Solomon in the form Handel wrote it.

Both booklets contain interesting essays by Anthony Hicks (McGegan) and David Vickers (Reuss). I have to point out, though, that Mr Vickers has his problems with the biblical background of this work. He writes that it is "incongruous" that in the first act the inauguration of the temple and the love scene of Solomon and the Queen are connected, considering the former's "lust for idolatrous wives and concubines". But that was much later; at the beginning of his reign he promised to follow God's commandments. Part of this is the love for his own lawful wife, just as with the building of the temple he redeems his promise to God.
Later on Vickers writes that the librettist "reminds us that Solomon was not the rightful heir" of David. How does the librettist reminds us of this? Vickers probably refers to Solomon singing an aria in which he points out that he has killed Joab, Schimei and his brother Adonia. But the libretto doesn't suggest there was anything wrong with that which is completely in accordance with what the Bible says. First, in the first chapter of I Kings it is stated that David had sworn that Solomon would be his heir, and when he is old and sick he still takes the measures to ensure Solomon is becoming king when Adonia starts a coup d'etat. Secondly, in his last words to Solomon David urges his son to punish Joab and Schimei, and that is exactly what Salomo has done.
It is highly unlikely that in Handel's time anybody questioned the legitimacy of Solomon's rule. There was or is no reason to do so.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen
RIAS Kammerchor
Winchester Cathedral Choir

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