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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Solomon

Pharaoh's daughter - Sheila Armstrong (soprano)
First Harlot - Sheila Armstrong (soprano)
Nicaule, Queen of Sheba - Sheila Armstrong (soprano)
Second Harlot - Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano)
Zadok, the High Priest - Robert Tear (tenor)
Solomon - Justino Diaz (bass)
A Levite- Michael Rippon (bass)
Amor Artis Chorale
English Chamber Orchestra/Johannes Somary
Brilliant Classics Handel Edition Volumes 6 to 7
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99777-6/7 [2CDs: 77.3+74.6]



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Handel wrote 'Solomon' after a group of martial oratorios to texts by the Revd. Thomas Morrell. Morrell's libretti all helped Handel to mine the national mood in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite uprising and Cumberland's subsequent victory. But Morrell's rather broad-brush libretti restricted the scope of Handel's writing. For his next pair of oratorios ('Solomon' and 'Susanna') Handel turned to another, anonymous librettist. It is one of the curiosities of Handel's life that despite the not inconsiderable documentation for some areas of his career, there are glaring lacunae such as this.

The librettist for 'Solomon' may have been Newburgh Hamilton who did the necessary alterations to the original texts on which were based 'Alexander's Feast' and 'Semele'. The libretti for 'Solomon' and 'Susanna' have much in common, particularly their use of descriptions of Nature and the Natural world. Handel was quite susceptible to such sentiments and produced some highly evocative music in both the works. Morell's libretti tended to be rather full of pious platitudes and abstract ideas. So it is not surprising that given the libretto to 'Solomon', Handel gives us a wonderfully rich piece with double choruses and a remarkably large orchestra (Strings, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani). Though he uses his orchestra with remarkable restraint, the trumpets and drums not performing until the opening of Act II.

'Solomon' is based on II Chronicles and I Kings together with a few hints from Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews and is essentially an undramatic piece. In Act I, Solomon and Zadok, the High Priest celebrate the completion of the Temple. Solomon goes on to consummate his marriage with Pharaoh's daughter. This later section is remarkable for the explicitness with which it hymns the joys of the marriage bed (Something that may have led Handel to drop this act entirely when he revived the piece later on in his career). Act II deals with the story of Solomon's judgement of the case of the two harlots, each one laying claim to a baby. This is the only dramatic section in the oratorio. Act III starts with the famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and the remainder of the act details her visit and Solomon's entertainment for her. 'Solomon' may have had an underlying narrative in glorifying the Augustan Age of George II, but given that we have little basic knowledge about the genesis of the oratorio, such ideas must remain suppositions. What the piece does do though, is give us a picture of a golden age, picturing its religion, the bliss of happy marriage, justice, noble buildings and lovely countryside along with the envy of neighbouring states.

The previous volume in this series, 'Judas Maccabaeus', was also recorded by the Amor Artis Chorale and the English Chamber Orchestra under Johannes Somary. In that volume the performance of the Amor Artis Chorale was disappointing but they did rise to the challenge of the martial nature of that work. In 'Solomon' their robust vibrato laden tones are generally unsuitable for Handel's sophisticated choral writing. The opaque sound of their singing is unsatisfactory in such pieces as the Nightingale chorus.

As with 'Judas Maccabaeus' the soloists provide some consolation. Sheila Armstrong is by turns ravishing, appealing and charming as the three heroines (Pharaoh's daughter, the first Harlot and the Queen of Sheba). Her scenes with Felicity Palmer's vehement second Harlot are dramatically memorable. Unfortunately these scenes, as with much else in the set, are marred by the Solomon of Justino Diaz.

Handel almost certainly viewed Solomon principally as a lover, after all there is no martial element in the opera. And in the oratorios, as in the operas, lovers were almost certainly high voices. It is unlikely that he was constrained by available personnel, after all if he had wanted Solomon to be a low voice then he could simply have allocated the alto to one of the priestly roles, something he did in other oratorios. Solomon was originally sung by a female contralto, but on recent recordings the role has most successfully been sung by both female and male altos. Unfortunately, on this recording the role is sung by a bass. Diaz has a very dark voice, which renders Solomon even less youthful than would have been the case with a lighter voiced baritone. His English is admirable but, coupled with the illogical tessitura, the slight accent unfortunately becomes just another thing to get annoyed about. Singing solo he makes a decent stylist, it is just a pity that he was not singing a real bass part. But in the ensembles the octave transposition falsifies the relationships between the voices and violates the delicate balance of Handel's orchestration.

As Zadok, Robert Tear is in bright, fearless form. In the passage work, I think he was probably attempting to give the notes a little more weight, commensurate with the nature of the general performance. Unfortunately this misguided attempt results in passage work that too often sounds like a car starting. This is a shame as Tear is a fine performer and this mars what could have been a good performance. As a Levite Michael Rippon performs decently, but occasionally sounds uncomfortable.

The English Chamber Orchestra turn in another stylish performance. A little heavy by today's standards, but the orchestral contribution remains one of the most listenable parts of this recording. Somary's speeds remain on the steady side without ever getting too heavy.

Robert Hugill



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