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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Solomon (edited and arranged Beecham)
Solomon – John Cameron (baritone)
Zadok, the High Priest – Alexander Young (tenor)
Queen, Pharaoh’s Daughter/Peasant Girl – Elsie Morison (soprano)
Nicaule, Queen of Sheba – Lois Marshall (soprano)
Beecham Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded London, 1955-56
SOMM-BEECHAM 17 [52.18 + 51.05]

This is very definitely Handel as edited and arranged by Beecham. There are reorchestrations and wholesale removals, reordering and reshaping. Out goes the Levite, and the whole tenor of the work sheds ecclesiastical trappings; love is the theme of Part I and those familiar with modern editions will note that Zadok doesn’t intercede his recitative and aria between Solomon and the Queen in Part I. Choruses are reassigned – not least From the censer curling rise and the dramatic Praise the Lord with harp and tongue which now serves as the finale. All these things Beecham outlined in a note for the original LP edition, faithfully reprinted here (I was amused to see how what the rest of us call the Judgement of Solomon Beecham oratorically and rather sarcastically designates as the scene of Solomon with the two women contending for ownership of the child).

So let us put to one side talk of comparative versions and enjoy this Handel-Beecham Solomon for what it is; a work refashioned not to suit the conductor’s whims or caprices, but thoughtfully and elegantly revised in the interests of perceived naturalness and compactness. There are a huge number of things to enjoy. Firstly of course the grandeur and magnificence of Beecham’s treatment of the orchestral score – the colour, nobility and clarity. Then the excellent singing of his eponymous choral Society whose veiled and reverent singing of With pious heart and holy tongue is moving. If this isn’t how we do it now then so much the worse for us. Alexander Young is clarion voiced and inflects his recitative Imperial Solomon with great subtlety (the similarity of his voice here with the young Robert Tear’s is notable). Sacred raptures is taken quite slowly which forces Young to break every now and then; I sense he wanted to move it on but Beecham holds steady - a quicker pace would have made the divisions easier to take. This is actually a test case of Beecham’s personalised perception; he might be somewhat ungenerous to his singer but his rallentandi are full of expressive and explosive depth and he allows great, almost operatic, characterisation; when Young sings too fierce to be expressed it really does sound that way for once; no bluster, just a steadily inward, very interior phrase.

Elsie Morison’s Bless’d the day is clear as a bell and agile and she lives the Beecham aesthetic with palpable enthusiasm. John Cameron is both noble and a lover; he is prayerful in Thus the rolling surges rise and duets characterfully with Morison in Welcome as the dawn of day. In her two smaller roles Lois Marshall proves every bit as adept as her colleagues; her Act II aria Will the sun forget to streak is especially fine. How typically Beechamesque though is the mighty cymbal crash that at the end of the chorus Now a diff’rent measure try and, no less, the proud trumpet that courses thrillingly through the Double Chorus that Beecham has placed to end Part I, From the censer curling rise. And indeed the extra phalanx of low brass he asks for in Praise the Lord where he inspires a chorale type sound very different from, say, the magnificently thrilling approach of John Eliot Gardiner, amongst the "moderns." I dare say hair shirted brethren will berate the vulgarity, but I loved it.

This set was presumably taken from commercial LPs. There is hiss at a high playback level and a few very trivial ticks. One part of the original recording that couldn’t, obviously, be dealt with is the sometimes abrupt change of acoustic, reflecting the different recording dates (six days in November 1955, three in December of the same year and three in 1956). It’s quite jarring to move from the Nightingale Chorus to The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (with an edit glitch separating them). But never mind all that; this is the first time Beecham’s Solomon has appeared on CD. It’s a heartfelt, noble and stirring achievement and, like the Boy King’s tomb, full of wonderful things.

Jonathan Woolf

 


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