, September 2006
Handel was a dextrous composer when he set to work: he wrote this large oratorio in little more than five weeks, between 5 May and 13 June 1748. The first performance was at Covent Garden on 17 March the following year and it obviously didn’t make much of an impression. It was given three times that season and then it was another ten years before it was dusted off and played twice, heavily cut.
It has never been able to challenge some of the more dramatic – or shall we say operatic – oratorios but there is one number here that most music-lovers know: the sinfonia that opens part III, popularly known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. This is lively and vivacious music and it reflects the character of the oratorio at large, where there is a high proportion of fast and springy music. It is spectacularly orchestrated with lots of timpani and trumpets – not uncommon in Handel to be sure, but there’s also very inventive word-painting. For example the chorus that concludes part I, where the chorus sing While nightingales lull them to sleep with their song and a solo violin imitates the birds’ trills.
I have no closer knowledge of existing rival recordings, except John Eliot Gardiner’s Philips version, set down more than twenty years ago – how time flies! Like Martini on the present set Gardiner also employs period instruments. The biggest difference is the number of them: Martini has fifteen strings, Gardiner twenty-seven. Gardiner also employs more woodwinds and horns, thus producing a larger sound while still getting the transparency that one associates with period instruments. This doesn’t mean that Martini’s band lacks heft, on the contrary his players have all the power needed. Without going into detailed comparisons I can truthfully say that Martini in no way comes out second best. He secures a vitality in the playing from the first chords of the overture that he never allows to slacken. The whole performance is permeated with zest and joy – which of course doesn’t mean that the more deeply felt inward and brooding numbers lack feeling.
By and large this live performance finds the right balance and recorded straight off at a single live performance one gets a feeling of continuity, which is not always the case with studio efforts, recorded in bits and pieces. The choir, which Martini himself started in 1965, is well versed in Martini’s intentions and since they have made a speciality of Handel performances - several of them recorded by Naxos - we also feel the conviction in the singing. That it is a live recording is nothing one notices while listening; I even listened to large sections with headphones and could not detect any unwanted noises.
The recording venue seems to be quite spacious, since there is an aura around the choral sound that in one or two places can seem plush, but in general it’s a well defined sound. I believe that the choir is placed in a wide half-circle behind the orchestra with the soloists fairly close, maybe in front of the orchestra, for they seem to be in a slightly less reverberant acoustic. Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir is superb but these German singers are in the same league.
In the liner notes Martini states that “a performance of this work must … always be uncut.” In this respect Gardiner has a different opinion: “I cannot agree with those purists who consider it an abomination to omit a single semiquaver from Handel’s oratorios. Handel, practical musician that he was, felt obliged from time to time to write an aria or two for minor characters, just to keep them happy, thereby bringing the action almost to a halt. Unfortunately there are a few such arias in ‘Solomon’…”: quoted from an interview with Gardiner by Carol Felton in the booklet for the original LP issue of Solomon. This led Gardiner to cut The Queen of Sheba’s first and Solomon’s last aria, two of Zadok’s airs and one of the Levite’s. He also removed the final chorus and in its place substituted the more imposing Praise the Lord with harp and tongue. I can feel sympathy with all of these decisions; several of the aforementioned arias are fairly empty with lots of florid singing that requires excellent singers but leading nowhere in particular. On the other hand it is good to have the score complete and then it is up everyone’s discretion to skip the parts one doesn’t like.
The original final chorus, by the way, is more lightweight than Praise the Lord, but still brings the work to a jubilant end.
A look at the casts reveals that Gardiner has the more starry singers. There are baroque specialists like Carolyn Watkinson, Nancy Argenta, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and, as The Queen of Sheba, Barbara Hendricks, no less. Of course they sing extremely well, but Martini’s less famous line-up is, on the whole, just as good. Solomon is sung by Polish mezzo Ewa Wolak, who has a somewhat occluded tone with thicker textures, making her at times sound matronly; at others she sounds almost like a counter-tenor. Even though Carolyn Watkinson’s brighter sound seems more appropriate for the King, Wolak is quite successful. It is a big voice but in the last aria (the one cut by Gardiner) she surprises with very skilful florid singing. Elisabeth Scholl, who besides singing the Queen also doubles as Second Woman, displays a lithe voice with warmth but not always ideally steady. She sings brilliantly though in the Second Woman’s Thy sentence. The Scottish soprano Nicola Wemyss as the First Woman is at her very best in Beneath the vine. Beautiful singing of a beautiful aria – and the flutes are lovely. She also makes the most of The Queen of Sheba’s two arias. The tenor Knut Schoch as Zadok is greatly impressive. He has all the technical skill to negotiate his complicated coloratura and sings with great beauty of tone. We have to be grateful to Martini that he didn’t cut any of Zadok’s arias, so exquisitely does Schoch sing them. The Levite’s part also requires florid singing and Matthias Viweg has no difficulties in getting his manly, steady bass-baritone through the roulades.
We have to do without the sung texts, unless we download them from the internet, but Martini does provide an excellent synopsis. The long oratorio, 2:40:07, has unbelievably been squeezed onto only two CDs, the first of them running for 81:06; I don’t believe I have come across a longer playing time.
Coming back to Handel’s music after some time, or experiencing something by him for the first time, always gives the same positive effect. What marvellous tunes he wrote and what vitality there is almost everywhere in his oeuvre. I hadn’t listened to Solomon this side of the turn of the millennium but it was like meeting an old friend and realising how much I had missed him. I was deeply engrossed in this performance from beginning to end and I can’t see many Handel lovers being disappointed. No big names, perhaps, but excellent musicians doing an excellent and inspired job. At the Naxos give-away price I urge all Handelians