Photo, Chris Christodoulou
Friday, August 19, 2022
Royal Albert Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
It’s a brave – or perhaps just foolhardy – undertaking for a period-instrument ensemble to perform a long Baroque composition, such as Handel’s oratorio Solomon (premiered 1749) in the large cavern of the Royal Albert Hall. Needless to say it was only the handful of choruses with trumpets, horns and timpani which really started to inhabit and enliven that space. Otherwise, presumably the microphones picked up more nuance and variety from the stage to make the radio broadcast a more rounded and satisfactory experience.
Things came to life more in the extrovert Acts II and III. But the more subtle First – hailing the newly built Temple in Jerusalem, lauding Solomon’s virtuous regime, and exalting his and his unnamed Queen’s married relationship – was more like hearing a prolonged church anthem, tame and muffled in the wide ambience of a cathedral, however beautifully demure the stream of arias and choruses was. That Act’s concluding number, the celebrated ‘Nightingale’ Chorus, for instance, was dainty and cosy, rather than mellifluous or sensuous.
In general Sofi Jeannin’s performance brought more to the fore the responsiveness of the two dozen-strong BBC Singers – transparently blended in sonority for chordal and sustained textures (such as ‘Throughout the land Jehova’s praise record’) but also bringing to bear more alacrity and ebullience in the contrapuntally complex numbers. The English Concert tended to maintain a dutiful, if lithe, accompaniment, rather than actively exploring colour, meter, or Affekt so much. Admittedly this work comprises less of a dramatic narrative than many of Handel’s others; but musically it needed more thrust and vitality, along the lines of the sense of suspense achieved here in the engaging delivery of the dialogue between Solomon and chorus in Act III’s sequence beginning ‘Music, spread thy voice around’. But how vividly by comparison does Paul McCreesh’s conducting at the Proms back in 1998 remain in my mind, firing my avidly developing love for Handel’s oratorios and operas as a teenager.
Iestyn Davies’s pure, incisive performance gave the title role a composed, rarefied dignity, if not particularly a multi-dimensional personality. By contrast Anna Dennis was more sparkling and alluring as his Queen, though still poised and chaste in accordance with the overall interpretation of that Act (despite the erotic imagery of some of its text). She doubled as the plangently voiced First Harlot, vindicated in the judgement scene against Wallis Giunta’s feisty Second Harlot. The latter reappeared as the Queen of Sheba, still forceful, but perhaps slightly shrill and not quite at ease with the limping rhythm of ‘Ev’ry joy that wisdom knows’. Ashley Riches solemnly and strenuously declaimed the Levite’s sententious numbers, whilst Benjamin Hulett’s Zadok was more open and relaxed.
Nothing in this performance was out of place – indeed its precision of execution was masterly. But it was more edifying than ravishing, not taking heed of the chorus of Priests’ exhortation in Act One to “resound your Maker’s name, till distant nations catch the song, and glow with holy flame”.
Solomon – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto attributed to Thomas Morrell [sung in English]
Solomon – Iestyn Davies [pictured]
Solomon’s Queen / First Harlot – Anna Dennis
Queen of Sheba / Second Harlot – Wallis Giunta
Zadok – Benjamin Hulett
A Levite – Ashley Riches
Attendant – Peter Davoren
The English Concert [Nadja Zwiener, leader]