With its imposing double choirs and orchestras, its delectable epithalamium and its masque for the Queen of Sheba, Solomon is among Handel’s most colourful oratorios. Gardiner’s 1984 recording has served well to date, but the reigning monarch has now been deposed by the Young Pretender, Paul McCreesh, with his superb Archiv recording.
McCreesh has the inestimable advantage of Andreas Scholl, who brings both authority and a beguiling sensuality to the title role. His Queen is the excellent Inger Dam-Jensen, and his pair of Harlots, Alison Hagley and Susan Bickley, bring the famous scene of Solomon’s judgement – he discovers the true mother of the disputed child by proposing to slice it in two – to vibrant life.
Gardiner’s soloists were generally very fine, but his Queen of Sheba, Barbara Hendricks, was always the set’s weak point. McCreesh has Susan Gritton, who manages to be both sultry and stylish, not least in her ravishing aria ‘Will the sun forget to streak’. McCreesh also matches Gardiner in the grandeur of his choruses and the sweep of the action; he even outstrips him in the sublime evocation of nightingales and zephyrs in ‘May no rash intruder’.
Furthermore, McCreesh presents the score complete, on three CDs, where Gardiner blithely chopped five arias and the final chorus to save a disc. Paul Agnew and Peter Harvey as Zadok and the Levite prove that all their arias are worth having and McCreeshskilful handling of the concluding Grand Chorus ‘The name of the wicked’ gives the lie to Gardiner’s description as ‘surprisingly banal’, itself an echo of Winton Dean’s ‘the finale is the work of a tired brain’. Not at all: McCreesh reveals it as a suitably succinct moral commentary on the action, restoring the magnificent ‘Praise the Lord’ to its rightful place as the culmination of the Act III masque.