Handel's SolomonHandel's Solomon

The Gramophone Choice

Inger Dam-Jensen, Susan Gritton, Alison Hagley sops Susan Bickley mez Andreas Scholl counterten Paul Agnew ten Peter Harvey bass Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh

Archiv 459 688-2AH3 (161' · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon

Solomon is universally recognised as one of Handel’s finest masterpieces, not only with magnificent choruses, but more ­importantly containing rapturous love music, nature imagery, affecting emotion and the vividly portrayed dramatic scene of Solomon’s famous judgement over the disputed infant. This is in fact the only dramatic part of the oratorio; and each of the female characters appears in only one of the work’s three parts. Paul McCreesh, responsive to the work’s stature, employs an orchestra of about 60 (including a ­serpent as the bass of the wind group) and ­presents the oratorio in the original 1749 version, full and uncut. 

It’s been argued that even in so splendid a work Handel was fallible enough to include some dead wood. McCreesh, however, stoutly defends the original structural balance. In one respect, though, he does depart from Handel’s intentions. By the time Solomon was ­written, he was using no castratos in his ­oratorios, and the title-role was ­deliberately designed for a mezzo-soprano; but here the chance to secure the pre-eminent countertenor Andreas Scholl was irresistible. The colour of Handel’s predominantly female vocal casting (only Zadok and the smaller-part Levite being exceptions) is thus slightly modified. This historical infidelity is one of the few possible ­reservations about the set, which is a notable achievement. McCreesh is fortunate in his cast, too. Predictably, Scholl becomes the central focus by his beauty of voice, calm authority, charm and intelligent musicianship. Inger Dam-Jensen, as Solo­mon’s queen, sounds suitably ecstatic in the florid ‘Blessed the day’ and amorous in ‘With thee th’unsheltered moor’, and her duet with Solomon flows with easy grace. To Susan Gritton falls the sublime ‘Will the sun ­forget to streak’, with its wonderful unison oboe-and-flute ­obbligato. As the high priest Zadok, Paul Agnew shines in the ornate ‘See the tall palm’. A more positive and audible keyboard continuo would have been welcome, but this is a minor shortcoming, and the effect of the performance as a whole is deeply impressive, with such things as ‘Will the sun’, the grave interlude to ‘With pious heart’ and the elegiac chorus ‘Draw the tear from hopeless love’ haunting the listener’s mind.

 

Additional Recommendation

Carolyn Sampson, Susan Gritton sops Sarah Connolly mez Mark Padmore ten David Wilson-Johnson bass RIAS Chamber Choir, Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Daniel Reuss

Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1949/50 (155’ · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon

In his pioneering Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (OUP: 1959), Winton Dean advocated the excision of several arias (mainly for the priestly figures of Zadok and the Levite) and the replacement of the closing chorus by the monumental ‘Praise the Lord’ – a policy followed by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips), though not by the completist Paul McCreesh (Archiv – see above). In his new recording, Daniel Reuss ditches the final chorus, though he omits just two arias, neither lamented. He also makes puzzling internal cuts in the duet for Solomon and the first harlot, and, more damagingly, the gorgeous opening number of the masque.

That said, the Harmonia Mundi recording is almost unreservedly enjoyable. Abetted by his crack period orchestra and 40‑strong chorus, Reuss is responsive alike to the oratorio’s ceremonial splendour and its fragrant pastoral tinta. The versions by Gardiner and McCreesh, balanced rather more in favour of the voices, generate an extra weight and sonorous magnificence in the great double choruses. But the vitality and refinement of the Berlin choir is always compelling. With terrific controlled raucousness from antiphonal wind and brass, the opening chorus of Act 2 is as elementally thrilling as it should be. At the other extreme, the Nightingale chorus, taken slowly and secretively, is at least the equal of McCreesh’s in drowsy amorous enchantment. 

Where the earlier recordings each have at least one unsatisfactory soloist, Reuss’s solo line-up could hardly be bettered. Handel cast the role of Solomon with a mezzo-soprano. Reuss does likewise with Sarah Connolly, who sings with glowing, even tone, ardour (in the love scene), and rapt inwardness in Solomon’s two ‘nature’ arias. Susan Gritton makes a gently sensuous queen (her musing ‘With thee th’unshelter’d moor I’d tread’ a highlight) and probes the full poignancy and anguish of the first harlot’s music. While yielding to Della Jones (Gardiner) and Susan Bickley (McCreesh) in sheer venom, Carolyn Sampson characterises with gusto as the second harlot, and beautifully softens her bright, vernal tone in ‘Will the sun forget to streak?’ The priests are in the expert hands of Mark Padmore (exemplary in his bouts of coloratura) and the gravely sonorous David Wilson-Johnson.

If you want this magnificent work complete, McCreesh’s is the version to go for, while for consistently glorious Handel singing the new Harmonia Mundi recording, impressively directed by Reuss, takes the palm.

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