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Georg Friedrich HANDEL (1685–1759)
Solomon (1749)
Michael Chance (counter-tenor) – Solomon; Nancy Argenta (soprano) – Solomon’s Queen; First Harlot); Laurie Reviol (soprano) – Queen of Sheba; Second Harlot; Julian Podger (tenor) – Zadok; Steffen Balback (bass) – Levite;
Maulbronn Chamber Choir, Hannoversche Hofkapelle/Jürgen Budday
rec. live, Maulbronn Monastery, Germany, 27-28 September 2003
K&K VERLAGSANSTALT 3-930643-73-1 [70:19 + 75:01]

It was only weeks ago that I reviewed a Solomon with similar forces, also recorded live by Naxos in Germany (see review).  In both cases the orchestras play period instruments and strive for historically authentic performances. I feel that the Hannoversche Hofkapelle is even more authentic in that it seems that they produce a smaller, thinner sound but this may also be due to the recording, which was made in the Maulbronn Monastery, founded by Cistercian monks in 1147, which is the only completely preserved mediaeval complex north of the Alps. It is today on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.  Sonically the venue is well suited to the music with a warm but not very reverberant acoustic. Comparing the two versions is, as so often, a matter of swings and roundabouts; in general it seems that Jürgen Budday opts for more contrast in dynamics and speeds. The choruses as well as the orchestral sinfonia that opens act three (The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) have more ebb and flow than Martini’s more literal reading on the Naxos. Budday also separates his singers into two distinct groups, which pays dividends especially in the greatest chorus, Praise the Lord (CD2 tr. 20). In some of the more solemn numbers he can drag a bit.
In two respects the recordings differ. Firstly Martini performs the oratorio absolutely complete while Budday cuts several arias and also makes some cuts within arias. When reviewing Martini I made some comparisons with Gardiner’s Philips recording, which also makes similar cuts, though not necessarily the same ones. Gardiner claims that all that Handel wrote was not gold and that there is no sacrilege in trimming. There are indeed a small number of arias that are fairly empty and mainly serve as vehicles for expert florid singing. On the other hand a completely complete recording allows the listener to make his/her own excisions. To be honest though I was fully satisfied with Budday’s decisions.
The second difference relates to the casting of Solomon himself. Both Gardiner and Martini have mezzos singing the part of the king and, strange as it may seem, this is what Handel prescribed. Signora Caterina Galli was the first Solomon on 17 March 1749. A mezzo can deliver more authority to the role. As well as Michael Chance sings he seems pale by the side of the fruitier Ewa Wolak for Martini. Still he can certainly muster considerable power and intensity, as in the dramatic recitative What says the other (CD2 tr.1), where he and Laurie Reviol dig into the text with operatic vehemence.
At the first performance Signora Giulia Frasi sang Solomon’s Queen as well as both the Queen of Sheba and First Harlot. In live performances, as the two versions discussed here, it is still common practice to double some parts. Gardiner in his studio recording used different singers for each part, something that of course creates greater variety.
Of the soloists here Michael Chance is a well-known quantity and acquits himself on the whole well, even though his lowest register is a little weak. Nancy Argenta at the beginning of her illustrious career in both opera, oratorio and lieder, was Solomon’s Queen also on Gardiner’s recording, more than twenty years ago. Her voice has spread a little but the tone is still fresh and bright and her singing is stylish. She also doubles as the First Harlot and sings movingly in the aria Can I see my infant gor’d (CD2 tr. 3). Laurie Reviol, Canadian like Ms Argenta, was a new name to me – and a pleasant surprise. She has a strong, incisive voice with true dramatic potential. The bio tells me that she is also a passionate jazz singer! Thrilling indeed, and that is exactly what her singing is. The Queen of Sheba’s second aria, Will the sun forget to streak (CD2 tr. 21) is something to return to. I hope to be hearing more from this fascinating singer in the future. Julian Podger is sure-footed in florid singing and takes good care of the opportunities in Zadok’s arias. Knut Schoch on the Martini recording is however even more elegant and fresher of tone. The two basses are about equals with Steffen Balbach (for Budday) somewhat darker and heavier.
A matter of swings and roundabouts. I still have a weakness for the Martini, while my colleague Glyn Pursglove was less enthusiastic and I advise readers to study his review too. Where the Martini scores is in the completeness and the authentic use of a mezzo-soprano, while Budday undoubtedly has more ebb and flow in the choral singing and the orchestra – to my ears a more romantic view.
As for the presentation I have once again to vent one of my hang-ups: Why do record companies persist in printing important information – as here – in yellow against a blue background? Every authority on legibility knows that this is sheer folly. There are also no timings of the individual numbers, neither is there a libretto (available from the K&K website). Naxos are better here, though the libretto has to be downloaded also.
The safest recommendation is, possibly, Gardiner, or Paul McCreesh whom I haven’t heard, but he has had generally good press. He also employs a counter-tenor and his set costs about three times as much as the Naxos. This Budday version can be bought at £16.93 from Amazon but the list price is considerably higher.
Göran Forsling



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