~ HWV 67 ~

Somm Recordings
Somm-Beecham 17-2
2 CDs
Recorded between Nov. 1955 - May 1956.
Released on CD in 2004.

Solomon: John Cameron, baritone
Zadok, The High Priest: Alexander Young, tenor
Queen, Pharaoh's Daughter / Peasant Girl: Elsie Morison, soprano
Nicaule, Queen of Sheeba: Lois Marshall, soprano

Beecham Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (on modern instruments)
Director: Sir Thomas Beecham

- previously released by EMI Records



In Winton Dean’s monumental 1959 study of Handel’s oratorios, he described that Solomon is “full of the sights and sounds of nature”, and opined that it shows “a wonderful recrudescence of Handel’s creative power, which a contemporary critic might have supposed on the wane since Belshazzar.” Other Handelians might have more to say in praise of the oratorios composed between 1744 and 1748, but I confess to sharing Dean’s point of view. Solomon is an astonishing masterpiece produced after a dull spell. Each of its three Acts portrays a vital aspect of the virtue, wisdom, and glory of Solomon’s rule over Israel, and this virtue is also inclusive of erotic love between the King and his newlywed. This factor presents a wonderful opportunity for Handel to provide some of his most tender and sensual love music in the chorus “May no rash intruder”.

This recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham was completed three years before Dean’s book was published, and it is fascinating to compare Beecham’s programme note with Dean’s penetrating study. While both estimable Handelians have a sort of musical wisdom to match Solomon’s own kind, Beecham’s approach to performing the score has not stood the test of time as comfortably as Dean’s analysis of it. Beecham sanctioned alterations to the score that are now consider sacrilegious, but he insisted “Those who are responsible for [reorchestrations] have striven to bear in mind the respect due to one of the great masterpieces of the 18th century”. Winton Dean memorably damned these efforts as a “sky-scraper of misapplied industry”.

The use of a baritone in an alto role always grates on my nerves, and, despite John Cameron’s voice being steady enough, I do not get much enjoyment out of hearing Solomon’s recitatives sung this slowly or this lowly. But the solo singing on this recording is pretty good: Alexander Young is not my ideal Handel tenor, but his reputation is well served by his contribution as Zadok, and the sopranos Elsie Morison and Lois Marshall sing with a light purity that will surprise all those who retain the misconception that all Handel performances before 1977 were intolerably heavy-handed and pompous.

The orchestrations are generally pleasant and unobtrusive. The recitatives illustrated with woodwind add little to the experience, but the extra percussion and brass in big choruses is splendid. Beecham was a great natural musician even if his comprehension of the score as an artistic whole seems strange. The subtle glow of Mozartian horns in “Will the sun forget to streak” is attractive, even if its location before the chorus “Praise the Lord” completely undoes its dramatic motivation. After all, the Queen of Sheba’s gorgeous tribute to Solomon’s greatness ought to occur after she has experienced the full grandeur and power of the music that leads up to it. In my opinion, Handel intended for the chorus “Praise the Lord” to stun the foreign Queen into admiration, and it marks the climax of a patiently developed dramatic crescendo. Even John Eliot Gardiner missed the point of this dramatic development in his otherwise magnificent 1984 recording. But whereas Gardiner was guilty of minor tampering with the order of the score while aware of the oratorio’s overall quality, Beecham could not resist reordering most of it into a two-part entertainment that only bears loose resemblance to Handel’s original structure. The chorus “From the censer curling rise” that should open Handel’s Act 2 is shunted to the end of a cobbled together “Part 1”, and occurs after most of the action Handel originally placed in Act III. The so-called “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” – nicely played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – was placed by Handel at the beginning of Act 3, but Beecham places it remarkably soon after Solomon’s wedding night. It seems that no sooner is one Queen dealt with than another presents herself (and with no harlots in between).

Beecham’s alterations to Handel’s instrumentation and fruitless reordering of the numbers might not be considered ideal these days, but they do not offend me as much as the entire omission of the Judgment scene. What is the biblical King Solomon remembered for if not his alleged wisdom? Furthermore, Handel’s genius as a musical dramatist was rarely more evident than in the true mother’s grieving plea “Can I see my infant gored?”, and the jarring contrast with the imposter’s sneering contribution “Thy sentence, great King, is prudent and wise”. Beecham’s decision to cut the emotional and dramatic heart of the oratorio is unforgivable: it is like hearing Messiah without the section stretching from “He was despised” to “Thou shalt break them”. Beecham instead produces a parody that only dwells on the King’s sexual adventures with his new Queen, and his desire to show off in front of the Queen of Sheba. Sadly, wisdom is lacking from this arrangement in both literal and artistic ways.

However, the first appearance of this recording on CD does not have the damaging implications that the LPs had nearly fifty years ago. Regardless of what it might have done in 1956, it cannot now do harm to our understanding of the oratorio. Paul McCreesh’s excellent DG recording of Solomon is a complete performance of a text that reflects Handel’s artistic intentions. Alternatively, if one wants to hear a stunning period instrument performance with the warmth and character that McCreesh occasionally lacks, then the slightly less complete version by John Eliot Gardiner is still hard to match concerning musical matters. Beecham’s Solomon was never intended to be either complete or ‘authentic’, and so its transfer onto CD for the first time by Somm is best understood as a historical document of what oratorio performances used to be like.

The musicianship is never in much doubt, and the quality of the CD transfer is really impressive. Traditional recordings from the 1960s and early 1970s can sound much worse than this. Beecham was a great conductor, and his interpretation of isolated moments is more rewarding if disengaged from the whole. After reconsideration, I wholeheartedly agree that this “commemorates a sky-scraper of misapplied industry”, but am thankful to Somm for its dedicated championing of a conductor who cared a great deal about Handel’s lesser-known works while most of his colleagues remained totally disinterested. If you think that arrangements of Handel’s works by Mozart and Mendelssohn are worth hearing and respecting in their own right (which I do), then the same sense of fair play has to be granted to Beecham’s arrangement of Solomon.

© David Vickers - July 2004

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