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Recordings Wrap Up The Handel Year

December 08, 1985|HERBERT GLASS

Los Angeles was a non-contender in paying homage to George Frideric Handel during the tercentenary of his birth.

We heard none of the less-familiar oratorios. We had no professional, perhaps not even any amateur, staging of a Handel opera in Los Angeles in 1985, whereas the metropolises of Purchase, N.Y., and College Park, Md., staged Handel productions that were, according to reliable reports, among the finest--and most inventive--to be found anywhere in the world.

So, L.A.-based Handelians had to seek solace in recordings. And even there, the big, gap-filling event of the Handel Tercentenary eluded us (and the rest of the world) until its closing weeks.

The 11th-hour blessing came in the form of the first stylistically valid recording (Philips 412 612, three standard discs, two compact discs) of the splendid oratorio "Solomon," an exemplar of the musical grandeur of the composer's last years.

Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 107 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Herb Glass may have heard "none of the less-familiar oratorios" in Los Angeles during celebrations this year marking the tercentenary of Handel's birth, as he wrote last week, but Margaret Quiett of Alhambra did. She caught "Judas Maccabaeus" by the William Hall Chorale at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium last May and, she writes, was most pleased.

The performers in this recording are the English Baroque Soloists, playing on period instruments, and the Monteverdi Choir under the astute and lively direction of John Eliot Gardiner. The libretto of "Solomon," by a writer whose identity remains a mystery, takes the form of a tribute to the wisdom and heroism of Handel's patron, George II, and a paean to wealthy, omnipotent Georgian England. But, as set by Handel, it also becomes a profoundly human document, filled with deft characterizations.

Handel wrote all the principal parts, including the title role, for women and on Philips his instructions have been faithfully observed. In the case of Solomon himself, this may take some getting used to, previous editions having cast a dramatically more convincing tenor or bass in the part. But in so doing, editors played havoc with Handel's key relationships and harmonies.

Gardiner's Solomon is the lovely young English mezzo-soprano Carolyn Watkinson, who portrays the monarch to as credible a degree as necessary, Solomon after all being not a realistic role, but rather the not-too-close--for fear of committing lese majeste-- symbolic representation of the British monarch.

Handel's stunning gifts of musical characterization are brought to bear in Act II, which celebrates the wisdom of Solomon. Suddenly, with the entry of the two harlots, suing for possession of the infant each claims to be hers, the dignified oratorio becomes a piece of lively theater: Each of the women, the one tenderly solicitous (soprano Jean Rogers), the other scheming and hypocritical (mezzo Della Jones), defined with cunning musical strokes and theatrical acumen that would do honor to a Mozart or a Verdi.

Solomon's passionate, adoring Queen (soprano Nancy Argenta) is likewise a character of flesh and blood, whereas the Queen of Sheba (soprano Barbara Hendricks), who represents an admiring world paying tribute to the wealth and power of Solomon/George II rather than a royal dalliance, returns us to the symbolic world of Act I and the pomp of the Georgian court.

Highly recommended as well is a handsome-sounding re-release of the dozen-year-old recording of the 1735 oratorio "Saul" in which Sir Charles Mackerras conducts the modern-instruments English Chamber Orchestra and the Leeds Festival Chorus (Deutsche Grammophon 413 910, three standard discs). To anyone at all interested in 18th-Century musico-dramatic style, the mental deterioration of the Saul of Charles Jennens' libretto and Handel's score will be no less harrowing than that of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Indeed, an English-speaking Boris of the highest attainment is what the role requires. The present Saul, bass Donald McIntyre, is hardly a vocal paragon, but he does make us sympathetic witnesses to the king's jealous rages, his catastrophic self-deception: a powerful, if incomplete, picture of a Lear-like figure whose plight unfolds in a chain of strikingly dramatic recitatives.

The center-stage dominance of Saul is given a powerful, if quite likely unintentional, assist by the librettist, who contrasts the gnarled figure of the old king with the most wimpy-sweet David in all of literature, fittingly sung here by James Bowman. There are potent characterizations too of Saul's daughters, the noble Michal and the haughty Merab, sung respectively (and superbly) by sopranos Sheila Armstrong and Margaret Price, in a foreshadowing of the "Solomon" harlots.

While there is certainly room for a period style recording of "Saul," this one is hugely persuasive on its own terms, expertly setting forth all the elements of Handel's extraordinary structure: its soul-baring recitatives, florid yet dramatically pertinent arias, festive choruses and brilliant orchestral interludes.

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