More Queen of Sheba than Solomon
George Frideric Handel: Solomon HWV 67. Sarah Connolly, alto; Susan Gritton, soprano; Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Mark Padmore, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass. Rias Kammerchor (Berlin). Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Daniel Reuss, conductor. Producer: Martin Sauer; sound engineer: Tobias Lehmann. Two CDs, 2 h 35’; recorded in May 2006, Teldex Studio, Berlin (Germany). Harmonia Mundi HMC 901949.500,0002771 Although Handel is a composer who is always in fashion, truly belonging the ‘core of the canon’, one can observe that different sections of his œuvre are especially popular at different times for the record industry. Thus, while pieces such as the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks have always been popular, it was only in the last twenty years that many of the operas were rediscovered for production on CD.
The new enthusiasm was followed slightly later by a rediscovery of Handel’s oratorios. Messiah was of course always present for more than the last fifty years; but of all the other of Handel’s oratorios, not many were well-known until relatively recently. Robert King, Christopher Hogwood and Simon Preston, to name just a few, have made very valuable contributions to the catalogue. This has had the effect that more and more oratorios in addition to Messiah are becoming part of our musical life in concerts and recordings. And the release of new recordings of the oratorios goes on unabated, as can be seen by the present CD.
Daniel Reuss’ recording of Solomon does not actually fill a gap, since there are already several good recordings of this oratorio available, most notably the recording with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists on Philips. This can be seen as a ‘reference’ recording, standing in one line with Gardiner’s other great Handel recordings. In addition, there are two more recordings by other known Handel specialists: Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort and Players on Archiv Produktion, and Nicholas McGegan with Winchester Cathedral Choir and the Festspielorchester Göttingen on Carus; the McGegan recording is especially attractive in that it was recorded in the rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden. Finally to these must be added the recordings with Sir Thomas Beecham, the Beecham Choral Society and the RPO on Emi, and with Amor Artis Chorale and the English Chamber Orchestra under Johannes Somary on Regis Records. While the first of these final two certainly gives a good impression of the mid-twentieth century performance practice, Somary’s recording falls a bit short due to the fact that the choir sounds rather too operatic for a Baroque oratorio.
Daniel Reuss’ interpretive approach to Solomon is straightforward and captivating from the first note, and he has united an overall good body of performers. Solomon is sung by Sarah Connolly, who is known from her performance as Julius Cesar under William Christie in the acclaimed production at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival 2006. Her singing is of a high standard, although one may question whether she is appropriate for the role of Solomon. Connolly’s singing sounds more like that of an affectionate mother than that of the mighty Biblical king. Her expression is too mild and she looses too much of the tension in larger phrases. For instance, in her first accompagnato recitative ‘Almighty pow’r’ (CD 1, track 5) she can in no way compete with Andreas Scholl’s performance under Paul McCreesh. Some people might feel that the distinct voice of a modern countertenor would be a more effective choice for this role of the Old Testament king, although it must be noted that at the oratorio’s first performance on 17 March 1749 Handel had indeed employed a female alto, Caterina Galli.
Solomon’s queen is sung by the soprano Susan Gritton who, incidentally, sang also in McCreesh’s recording of the oratorio. Her singing is fine and controlled, and her round and full tone appears very appropriate for a queen constantly singing of her love to Solomon. With the queen’s role being over after the first act, Gritton takes on the role of the First Harlot in the second act. The two harlots are the two mothers competing in the famous judgment of Solomon. Gritton is very convincing in the role of the real mother who would rather lose her child than see it killed. Her intense expression in the aria ‘Can I see my enfant gor’d’ is appropriately moving, thus stressing the deeply human side of this story.
Perhaps the best-known name amongst the soloists is that of soprano Carolyn Sampson, who is known as a singer of music from this period from many concerts and recordings. In this recording she sings the Queen of Sheba and the Second Harlot. While all her singing as queen is restricted to act three, she leaves a lasting impression even in the minor role of Second Harlot, and from her first appearance in the trio ‘Words are weak to paint my fears’ in act two (CD 1, track 27) the quality of her singing stands clearly out from the rest of the cast. Indeed, her performance in the short aria ‘Thy sentence, great king’ in the middle of the second act (CD 2, track 2) is unrivalled by any of the other singers. Handel had written this strong statement of the child’s false mother as a bravura aria, and Sampson’s is a most convincing rendition. However, Sampson comes to full flower in the role of the Queen of Sheba, and her singing in the lengthy aria ‘Will the sun forget to speak’ in the third act (CD 2, track 29) is one of the highlights of this recording. She combines a fully developed voice with perfect technique and musicality. Her duet ‘Ev’ry joy that wisdom knows’ with Solomon near the end of the oratorio (CD 2, track 31) again points out the quality of her singing, unfortunately to the disadvantage of Connolly.
Mark Padmore sings the two tenor roles of Zadok and the Attendant, the latter of which has only a single short appearance in act two. Zadok, the Priest who anointed Solomon king and is known from Handel’s famous coronation anthem, has some of the most difficult arias of the entire oratorio with ‘Sacred raptures cheer my breast’ in act one (CD 1, track 7) and ‘See the tall palm that lifts the head’ in act two (CD 2, track 9). These arias are full of large jumps and coloraturas and this role is a challenge for any singer. Padmore does a good job, although one is sometimes not sure if he will have enough voice to make it to the end, his coloraturas sounding rather insecure and occasionally breathless. Also he lacks the stateliness that characterises Zadok the Priest, and thus the aria ‘Golden columns, fair and bright’ (CD 2, track 25) in which Handel’s employs the style of the slow part of a French overture, comes out sounding rather plain and unimportant. However, Padmore gives a much more convincing interpretation of the recitatives, to which he brings real drama; in fact, they are more exciting than his arias.
David Wilson-Johnson’s rich and sonorous bass serves well to portray the Levite, a guardian of the Mosaic Law. Nevertheless, his approach is occasionally quite operatic and he seems to focus too much on a rich, vibrato-ornate tone. As with many singers who suffer from such self-indulgence, this results in a slight lack of clarity in fast passages or coloraturas. For instance in his air ‘Thrice bless’d that wise discerning king’ in the second act (CD 1, track 25) he often seems a tick behind the beat and one cannot help but feeling compassion for the conductor who wants to keep the tempo.
The singing of the choir, the RIAS Kammerchor, is in general convincing. Their performance is clear, well articulated and well coordinated with the orchestra. For most of the time they sing in a lively way, captivating the listener with their enthusiasm, for instance in ‘Swell, swell the full chorus to Solomon’s praise’, the final chorus of act two (CD 2, track 12). Surprisingly, they seem to lose this enthusiasm in the final chorus of the oratorio ‘Praise the Lord with harp and tongue’ (CD 2, track 32). The jubilant tone of this chorus is supported by the orchestration that includes trumpets and timpani; nevertheless, the choir sounds a bit tired and actually bored. One may only speculate if they were exhausted near the end of the recording session – in any case, it is to be regretted that this number is not performed with the same spirit as the preceding choruses.
The orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, plays with great accuracy and one could guess that they specialise in the music of this period. Reuss uses their experience and professionalism to insert a number of fine nuances and contrasts. Thus, even an overplayed instrumental piece such as the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (CD 3, track 13) is performed in a captivating and seemingly ‘new’ way.
The sound quality of this recording is very good, as one might expect on harmonia mundi. Singers and instruments are discernable in full plasticity and relate to each other in perfect balance. The acoustics sound natural and are of appropriate fullness without exaggerated reverb – reminding the listener that Handel usually performed his oratorios in theatres rather than in church buildings.
The CDs come in attractive cardboard packaging. The main box contains the booklet, and the CDs come in a separate small box. This separation is very user-friendly as one can easily take the separate items without having to take the whole lot. The cover picture shows Christian Winck’s Judgement of Solomon, probably one of the best-known stories of the Biblical king. Since this tale is presented in the second act of the oratorio, this picture is appropriate enough to adorn the CD cover. However, one might argue that there are more famous pictures of this scene, which would have been more recognisable. Furthermore, it may have been stylistically more conclusive to choose a picture from Handel’s lifetime or before; after all, Winck’s picture dates from 1780, 21 years after the composer’s death. The booklet includes the full libretto and a very informative text by David Vickers that explains the oratorio’s genesis, Handel’s composition style and the first performance. Also included are short biographies of the performers; all texts are given in the original English with German and French translation.
In sum, despite minor shortcomings of some of the performers this is a very good recording. Of course, it might be asked why Reuss chose to record this oratorio, which has already been recorded several times; instead he could perhaps have chosen a piece that is less present in concerts and recordings (there are, for instance, still some unrecorded anthems). Nevertheless, I can readily recommend this CD to those who do not yet have a good recording of Solomon.