musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759): Solomon, oratorio in 3 acts (HWV 67)

Nancy Argenta (Pharao's Daughter, First Harlot), Laurie Reviol (Queen of Sheba, Second Harlot), soprano; Michael Chance (Solomon), alto; Julian Podger (Zadok), tenor; Steffen Balbach (Levite), bass
Maulbronner Kammerchor, Die Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Dir.: Jürgen Budday

rec: Sept 27 & 28, 2003 (live), Convent Maulbronn (Ger)
K&K Verlagsanstalt - KuK 73 (ISBN 3-930643-83-9) (© 2004) (2 CDs) (2.25'25")

Many oratorios by Handel are not unlike his operas as far as their dramatic character is concerned. But Solomon is different: there is little dramatic action here. The oratorio also belongs to Handel's lesser-known compositions. But one fragment from Solomon has become one of the most famous pieces of instrumental music of all time: the Sinfonia which opens the third part, generally called 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba'.

Solomon was composed in May and June 1748 on the libretto of an unknown author. Its subject is the wealth and wisdom of King Solomon, under whose rule the Jewish people experienced a 'Golden Era'. This is reflected in the scoring: Handel requires a rather large orchestra, consisting of transverse flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings and b.c., which is often split into contrasting groups, like strings versus winds or soli versus tutti. Sometimes the string parts are also split. In addition more than half of the rather large number of choruses is in eight parts, split into two separate groups.

This oratorio is a sequence of three tableaux which shed light on three sides of Solomon's rule. The first part tells about the consecration of the temple and Solomon's marriage to the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.

The second part is the only one which contains dramatic action: here we see Solomon as a wise judge, who has to deal with the case of two hookers ('harlots' as they are referred to in the textbook) who both claim to be the mother of a baby. By ordering to cut the baby into two halves and give each of the women one half, their reaction reveals their true character and makes clear who the real mother is. It is a shame this scene is divided over the two discs.

The third part tells about the huge wealth of Solomon and his country: the Queen of Sheba arrives, and is flabbergasted by everything she sees and hears. The whole part is a hymn on Solomon's wealth and wisdom.

There are not that many performances of this oratorio, and certainly not complete ones. As far as I know only Paul McCreesh recorded the oratorio in its entirety, whereas the previous period instrument recording by John Eliot Gardiner contained several cuts. This live recording isn't complete either. The booklet doesn't tell whether these cuts were made in order to put this performance on two discs or whether they were made for the performance itself. But even with cuts this performance takes more time than Handel had in mind. He wrote down the timings of the three parts: 40 minutes each for the first two parts and 25 minutes for the third. One wonders what these timings mean in regard to the tempi Handel used to take in his performances.

It is generally thought Handel wrote this oratorio as a kind of tribute to King George I, who had granted him English citizenship. The figure of Solomon was in fact a symbol for George I. It is interesting to note that Handel chose the title role to be sung by a female singer. It has been suggested that he did so in order to avoid any direct identification of Solomon with George I, since the interpretation of the role by a castrato wouldn't please the King very much. From this perspective it is a little strange that both McCreesh and Budday have chosen a male alto to sing this part. I have never been a great admirer of Michael Chance's singing, and I would have preferred another interpreter. Having said that there are certainly moments of great expression, for example his aria in the first part 'What though I trace'. But elsewhere the technical shortcomings are too obvious, for instance in the aria 'When the sun o'er yonder hills'. In particular at the outer ends of his tessitura his voice sounds very vulnerable.

I have good memories about Nancy Argenta, and I used to enjoy her performances, but right now she seems not be able anymore to sing without quite a lot of vibrato, which I find very annoying. That is also the case here, in particular in the first part, where she takes the role of Solomon's wife. Here her voice also sounds rather shrill, lacking the warmth one would expect to hear in this role. Her performance as the First Harlot in the second part is much better, in particular in the moving aria 'Can I see my infant gor'd'. Equally good is Laurie Reviol as the Second Harlot, as her voice's sharp edges makes her perfectly fit the part of the only bad character in this oratorio. But it is this feature of her voice which makes her far less suitable for the role of the Queen of Sheba in the third part. She lacks the same qualities as Nancy Argenta as Solomon's wife in the first part.

Julian Podger sings the role of Zadok competently, but he has some problems with the many melismatic passages in his arias. I had liked to hear some differentiation within those long lines, but there isn't. Steffen Balbach is alright in the small part of the Levite, but I don't find his voice very interesting. There is nothing in his singing which catches the ear.

The choir has a lot to do in this oratorio, and they do so quite well. But I find them a little rough and unpolished sometimes. In particular the men's voices lack sophistication and are a little harsh. The orchestra is playing well, but I would have preferred a slightly larger ensemble, with a little more power. Especially the passages for strings only are too thin now and then.

To sum up: this is a sympathetic recording, and projects like this - the live performance of Handel's magnificent oratorios - deserve to be supported. But unfortunately the overall level of this performance makes it difficult to recommend this recording to anyone outside the circle of people who have attended this live event and would like these discs as a kind of memory.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

CD Reviews