LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
PERFORMER: Sarah Connolly, Susan Gritton, Carolyn Sampson, Mark Padmore, David Wilson-Johnson; RIAS Chamber Choir; Akademie für alte Music Berlin/Daniel Reuss
Written after the Jacobite threat to the Hanoverian dynasty had been removed, Handel’s 1749 oratorio is sometimes interpreted as a celebration of the peace and prosperity of Britain under George II, but its golden-age view of Solomon and his kingdom is wider than any contemporary reference. In fact, with its eight-part double choruses and choice orchestral writing, the result is one of Handel’s most sensuous and at the same time exciting scores.


Some of its magnificence comes over in the new Harmonia Mundi recording, with sleek playing from the Berlin period instrument players, though the choir sounds too slim-line for the big moments. The sound, too, could do with more clarity. A team of UK soloists makes good sense, and they are never less than efficient. David Wilson-Johnson certainly registers as such in the civil-servant role of the Levite, even if his tone is a bit woolly these days. As Zadok, Mark Padmore moves around most of the notes with skill. Sarah Connolly is articulate as Solomon, her carefully measured tone combining warmth with dynamism. Susan Gritton is graceful as Solomon’s queen and striking as the First Harlot in the fight over the stolen baby. Carolyn Sampson opposes her with appropriate malice before switching to a mellifluous Queen of Sheba.

But Daniel Reuss’s conducting is slack, allowing tempos to drag. He also cuts the final chorus, moving the earlier ‘Praise the Lord’ into its place.

In his live account from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Nicholas McGegan keeps to Handel’s order and makes you wonder why anyone would tamper with it. His conducting is light on its feet without ever sounding pressed.

His soloists, bar for bar, match Reuss’s in quality. Tim Mead’s counter-tenor Solomon offers pleasing tone and is fully conscious of the text. Dominique Labelle sparkles as his consort while Claron McFadden’s Queen of Sheba is as shiny as her Second Harlot is shrill. The general fluency of Michael Slattery’s Zadok(as with Padmore) is only impeded when the notes come really thick and fast, and Roderick Williams’s Levite is sonorous and smooth. The main reservation concerns the acoustic, which smudges clarity in places, especially when the excellent Winchester Cathedral Choir is in full cry.

Both sets are good, though neither quite matches Paul McCreesh’s complete and colourful version, which also has the best sound.


George Hall