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George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Solomon (1748)
Ewa Wolak (mezzo) – Solomon; Elizabeth Scholl (soprano) – Pharoah’s Daughter, Queen/Second Woman; Nicola Wemyss (soprano) – Nicaule, Queen of Sheba/First Woman; Knut Schoch (tenor) – Zadok/Attendant; Matthias Vieweg (bass) – Levite
Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra/Joachim Carlos Martini
rec. live, Kloster Eberbach, Rheingau, Germany, 30 May 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557574-5 [81:06 + 79:01]

 

This is not, I regret to say, one of Naxos’s very happiest ventures.

Solomon is one of Handel’s finest oratorios - which means, of course, that it is very much in the premier division as far as this genre is concerned. It is not one of Handel’s most intensely or consistently dramatic oratorios – though there are some fine dramatic episodes, such as the familiar story (with its source in 1 Kings 3:16-28) of the judgement of Solomon in the case of the two women who both claim to be the mother of a boy infant. On the whole, many of Solomon’s great virtues lie elsewhere.

Winton Dean put it beautifully and perceptively in his famous book of 1959 on Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford University Press). He wrote of the work’s affirmation of “a kind of rational pantheism, not uncharacteristic of its century but seldom presented with such a glow of creative imagination” and considered that “Solomon is Handel’s picture of the golden age, an ideal world in which inner tranquillity is balanced by the outward splendour and aesthetic delights of a successful civilization”. That there should also be a degree of political flattery and idealisation of the England of George II does nothing to contradict the presence of this larger, less immediately topical, meaning and theme. In the service of his subjects, both immediate and universal, Handel wrote some very fine music indeed – as in the sensual and tenderly amorous chorus “May no rash intruder”; in the anguished aria “Can I see my infant gored”, sung by the true mother of the contested child; in “Bless’d the day”, sung by Solomon’s wife in Act I; and in much, much else. But, as is suggested by the comments from Dean which I have quoted above, Solomon is more than just a collection of beautiful musical episodes; while it may not have an obvious narrative coherence, it has a profound thematic coherence – a study in government, in justice and married love, in nationalistic envy and more.

The benchmark recordings of Solomon are those by John Eliot Gardiner, on Philips (412612-2) with The English Baroque Soloists, The Monteverdi Choir, Carolyn Watkinson, Nancy Argenta, Barbara Hendricks, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and others, and that by Paul McCreesh (DG Archiv 4596882), with the Gabrieli Consort and Players and soloists including Andras Scholl, Inger Dam-Jensen and Susan Gritton. Both set very high standards of musicianship and interpretation which rather put this new version in the shade. The playing of Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra is perfectly decent and there are some effective and attractive moments, but there are also rather too many times when rhythms plod and the subtlety of Handel’s writing is not successfully articulated. The choral singing of the Junge Kantorei copes pretty well with the intricacies of Handel’s writing – some of the choruses are in eight parts – without being consistently convincing, without always being able to communicate the sense of wonder and glory in some of the finest of the choruses. Of the soloists, Ewa Wolak is often striking and generally persuasive; Elisabeth Scholl is less consistently successful - she disappoints, for example, in “Bless’d the day”, but makes partial amends in duet with Wolak in “Welcome as the dawn of day”; Nicola Wemyss has an attractive soprano voice, but one might have hoped for more passion and grandeur in some of her contributions as the Queen of Sheba. Kurt Schoch makes some valuable contributions, though he sometimes has difficulty in negotiating Handel’s more complex writing; Matthias Vieweg is a decent, if not especially individual, Levite, but, in common with a number of the other soloists, his English diction and pronunciation leave a good deal to be desired.

This is, admirably, a complete recording of Solomon and I daresay that if one had been in the audience for this performance in Rheingau one would have found it a perfectly acceptable way of spending the evening. But I am not sure that it is a performance which most will want to listen to repeatedly. This is especially the case given the very high quality of the competition provided by the recordings under Gardiner and McCreesh. This new recording is, of course, much cheaper than either of those; but it is also much inferior. Solomon is very much a premier division oratorio – but this isn’t, I’m afraid, a premier division performance.

Though a live recording, there are relatively few extraneous noises and the recording quality is perfectly acceptable. There is a good booklet essay by the conductor and a synopsis – the texts are provided online, as is the Naxos way of late.

Glyn Pursglove

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