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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Solomon - oratorio in three acts HWV 67 (1748)
Nancy Argenta (Pharao's Daughter, First Harlot), Laurie Reviol (Queen of Sheba, Second Harlot), soprano; Michael Chance (Solomon), alto; Julian Podger (Zadok), tenor; Steffen Balbach (Levite), bass
Maulbronner Kammerchor, Die Hannoversche Hofkapelle (on period instruments)/Jürgen Budday
rec. live 27-28 September 2003, Convent Maulbronn, Germany. DDD
K&K VERLAGSANSTALT - KUK 73 (ISBN 3-930643-73-1)[70:21 + 75:03]

The dramatic character of many of Handel's oratorios makes them not unlike his operas. Solomon is different: it offers little dramatic action. It also belongs to Handel's lesser-known compositions. But one fragment from Solomon has become one of the most famous pieces of instrumental music of all time: the Sinfonia which opens the third part, generally called 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba'.

Solomon was composed in May and June 1748 to the libretto of an unknown author. Its subject is the wealth and wisdom of King Solomon, under whose rule the Jewish people experienced a 'Golden Era'. This is reflected in the scoring: Handel requires a large orchestra, consisting of transverse flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, strings and b.c.. This is often split into contrasting groups: strings versus winds or soli versus tutti. Sometimes the string parts are also split. In addition more than half of the rather large number of choruses is in eight parts, split into two separate groups.

The pattern of the oratorio follows a sequence of three tableaux which shed light on three sides of Solomon's reign. The first part tells about the consecration of the temple and Solomon's marriage to the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.

The second part is the only one which contains dramatic action: here we see Solomon as a wise judge, who has to deal with the case of two prostitutes ('harlots' as they are referred to in the textbook) who both claim to be the mother of a baby. By ordering that the baby be cut into two halves and that each woman be given one half, their reaction reveals their true character and makes clear who the real mother is. It is a shame that this scene is divided over the two discs.

The third part tells of the huge wealth of Solomon and his country: the Queen of Sheba arrives, and is flabbergasted by everything she sees and hears. The whole part is a hymn to Solomon's wealth and wisdom.

There are not that many performances of this oratorio, and certainly not complete ones. As far as I know only Paul McCreesh recorded it entire. The previous period instrument recording by John Eliot Gardiner contained several cuts. This K&K live recording isn't complete either. The booklet refrains from telling us whether these cuts were made in order to put the performance onto two discs or whether they were made for the performance itself. Even with cuts this performance takes more time than Handel intended. He wrote down the timings for the three parts: 40 minutes each for the first two parts and 25 minutes for the third. One wonders what these timings mean in regard to the tempi Handel adopted in his performances.

It is generally thought Handel wrote this oratorio as a kind of tribute to King George I, who had granted him British citizenship. The figure of Solomon was in fact a symbol for George I. It is interesting to note that Handel indicated that the title role be sung by a female singer. It has been suggested that he did so in order to avoid any direct identification of Solomon with George I, since the interpretation of the role by a castrato wouldn't please the King very much. From this perspective it is a little strange that both McCreesh and Budday have chosen a male alto. I have never been a great admirer of Michael Chance's singing, and I would have preferred another interpreter. Having said that there are certainly moments of great expression, for example his aria in the first part 'What though I trace'. Elsewhere the technical shortcomings are too obvious, for instance in the aria 'When the sun o'er yonder hills'. At the outer ends of Chance's tessitura his voice sounds very vulnerable.

I have good memories of Nancy Argenta, and I used to enjoy her performances. Latterly her voice has taken on a lot of vibrato, which I find very annoying. That is also the case here, in particular in the first part, where she takes the role of Solomon's wife. Here her voice also sounds rather shrill, lacking the warmth one would expect to hear. Her performance as the First Harlot in the second part is much better, in particular in the moving aria 'Can I see my infant gor'd'. Equally good is Laurie Reviol as the Second Harlot, as the sharp edges of her voice match her role as the only bad character in the oratorio. However it is this feature of her voice that makes her far less suitable for the role of the Queen of Sheba in the part three.

Julian Podger sings the role of Zadok competently, but he has some problems with the many melismatic passages. I would have liked to hear some differentiation within those long lines, but there is none. Steffen Balbach is all right in the small part of the Levite, but I don't find his voice very interesting. There is nothing in his singing which catches the ear.

The choir has a lot to do in this oratorio, and they square up to the task quite well though at times they are a little rough and unpolished. The men's voices lack sophistication and are a little harsh. The orchestra playis well, but I would have preferred a slightly larger ensemble, with a little more power. Where the strings play alone they take on a certain thinness now and then.

To sum up: this is a sympathetic recording and live performances of Handel's magnificent oratorios deserve to be supported. Unfortunately given the overall level of this performance it is difficult to recommend this recording to anyone outside the circle of people who attended the event and would like these discs as a keepsake.

Johan van Veen



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