The great success at last year’s Promenade Concerts of Solomon, as presented by Paul McCreesh, has, happily, led to the present recording. The work is universally recognized as one of Handel’s finest masterpieces, not only with magnificent choruses (mostly in eight parts), including the exquisitely poetic ‘nightingale chorus’ that ends Part 1, and one of the most elaborate orchestras he ever employed, but more importantly containing rapturous love music, nature imagery, affecting emotion and, in Part 2, 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. In a brilliant short essay here, Ruth Smith underlines the libretto’s artful relevance to political and social conditions under George II at the time of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle – Part 3, a masque to entertain the Queen of Sheba (whose immensely popular ‘Arrival’ was almost certainly not originally composed for Solomon at all), was a codified bid for trade and artistic patronage.
McCreesh, responsive to the work’s stature, employs an orchestra of about 60 (including a serpent as the bass of the wind group, and incidentally instructing the horns to play with their bells up to produce a more pungent tone) and presents the oratorio in the original 1749 version, full and uncut. It has been argued that even in so splendid a work Handel was fallibly human enough to include some dead wood, and the Handelian authority Winton Dean suggested a handful of harmless excisions and the replacement of the lightweight final chorus by the grandiose ‘Praise the Lord’ – all duly adopted in the Gardiner recording. McCreesh, however, stoutly defends Handel’s original structural balance: ‘When you have the confidence to leave things alone, you suddenly realize that the actual shape of the structure of the piece is much better than you’d ever thought.’
In one respect, nevertheless, he does depart from Handel’s intentions. By the time Solomon was written, Handel was using no castratos in his oratorios, and the title-role in this case was deliberately designed for a favourite singer of his, the young female mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli (‘the great’, McCreesh; ‘not of the front rank’, Dean); but here the opportunity of securing the pre-eminent countertenor Andreas Scholl proved irresistible. The colour of Handel’s predominantly female vocal casting (only Zadok and the smaller-part Levite being exceptions) is thus slightly modified – though thankfully avoiding the musicologist Paul Henry Lang’s highly contentious statement that a baritone singing the part ‘in his own range immeasurably enhances the oratorio’s effectiveness’ – a claim manifestly disproved by the displacement caused in concerted numbers in which he would appear.
This historical infidelity is one of the few reservations that could be made about the set as a whole, which is a notable achievement. McCreesh, in general adopting tempos less fast than Gardiner’s (though not for the pastoral ‘Beneath the vine’), makes the most of Handel’s expressive range, draws stylish playing from his orchestra and assured singing from his chorus, which, following early practice, he places in front of the orchestra (forte passages thus sometimes becoming a bit overwhelming) and which, like Gardiner, he divides antiphonally (with great benefit in the cries of ‘Happy Solomon’, for example). He is fortunate in his cast, too. Predictably, Scholl becomes the central focus by his beauty of voice (conspicuously in ‘When the sun o’er yonder hills’), calm authority, charm (‘What though I trace’) and intelligent musicianship throughout. 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. The confrontation between the two harlots in Part 2 is brilliantly characterized by Alison Hagley as the tenderly maternal one (her ‘Can I see my infant gored?’ is most moving) and Susan Bickley as the inhumanly vengeful one. And 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 may lack Rolfe-Johnson’s roundness of tone (in the Gardiner recording) but shines in the ornate ‘See the tall palm’ (which Gardiner cuts): Peter Harvey’s tone, also, is not as firm as Stephen Varcoe’s. I should have welcomed a more positive and audible keyboard continuo (as in ‘Thus the rolling surges rise’ in the Gardiner set). But these are minor shortcomings, 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 one’s mind.'