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George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Solomon - oratorio in three acts HWV67 (1748) [156:41]
Tim Mead (alto) - Solomon; Dominique Labelle (soprano) – Solomon’s Queen; First Harlot; Claron McFaddon (soprano) – Queen of Sheba, Second Harlot; Michael Slattery (tenor) – Zadok; William Kendall (tenor) – Attendant; Roderick Williams (bass) – Levite
Winchester Cathedral Choir
Göttingen Festival Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
rec. live, Frauenkirche, Dresden, 26 May 2007. SACDs
Text and German translation included
CARUS 83.242 [3 discs: 60:20 + 49:15 + 47:04]

“Solomon” is one of the chain of English dramatic choral masterpieces that Handel completed in his final creative period. The anonymous libretto is cunningly constructed so that each Act has a distinct character, with the only dramatic narrative – the judgment of Solomon – falling in the middle Act. The first Act relates first his piety and then the love of Solomon and his Queen and the third the visit of the Queen of Sheba and the achievements of his reign. Although only the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” has become well known outside its context, the score is full of joyously varied music, cunningly scored and with only a minimum of lengthy da capo arias. Handel frequently divides the Chorus in two – an effect well realized here – and includes several duets and even a trio in the Second Act between Solomon and the two Harlots in which the different character of each is as clearly defined as in the trio in “Acis and Galatea” or even the quartet from “Rigoletto”. The score may be long but it is a delight from start to finish. After listening to it I understood the feeling behind the final lines of Samuel Butler’s poem addressed to Handel:

Methinks the very worms will find some strain
Of yours still lingering in my wasted brain. 

That is especially the case when performed and recorded as it is here. This is a live performance and the audience must have thought themselves very lucky to be present at such a lively performance. Vital and dancing rhythms are its key characteristics, along with a keen sense of the importance of the words and the dramatic situations. All of the soloists are excellent, and well suited to their parts. Both sopranos in particular have the necessary clarity and agility, whilst at the same time their different tone colours add greatly to the drama in the second Act when they take the parts of the two Harlots. Diction throughout is admirable not only from the soloists but also the excellent Winchester Cathedral Choir. Fortunately the usual problem in Cathedral choirs of a weak alto line does not apply often here, even in the double choruses. The orchestra, presumably playing on authentic instruments, make the most of Handel’s wonderfully colourful scoring. Although presumably the Frauenkirche is a large building, the recording is both clear and atmospheric. Throughout I felt that I was present at a real performance. My pleasure was increased by the helpful notes by Anthony Hicks and clearly laid out text, and also by the neat packaging, providing all the necessary protection whilst taking up little shelf space. 

If I wanted to carp I might say that some of the larger choruses may at times lack majesty and that there is an occasional tendency towards grace at the expense of vigour, but neither seriously reduced the quality of this performance. This is a delightfully fresh sounding account of a wonderfully life-enhancing work.

John Sheppard

 


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