I consider myself a Handel fan, but I still can’t think of any of his oratorios – or, especially, operas – that wouldn’t benefit from having the scissors taken to its running time. All those arias to so little dramatic effect! Solomon is one of his finest, with its meditation on majesty and wisdom, culminating in God’s glory being evoked through art – a very Handelian message. Even so, I found my fingers drumming through one character aria too many, and it’s a big mistake for Handel to have the piece’s greatest chorus – “Praise the Lord”, a stonker for double choir – followed by another fifteen minutes of music when really it demands to be followed by nothing other than the roar of the crowd.

Maarten Engeltjes © Harrison Parrott
Maarten Engeltjes
© Harrison Parrott

Having got that off my chest, however, this was as good a performance of the piece as you’d hope to hear. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are masters of period style on modern instruments, but tonight they did an especially convincing impression of a Baroque band, the violins vibrato-less but silky, producing a delectable blend with a particularly spicy oboe tone. They were conducted by Dutch specialist Peter Dijkstra, whose experienced hand revealed a secure understanding of the work’s structure and pace, with lots of flair at the brilliant moments and the confidence to slow down and let the music breathe at the right points.

It’s hard to imagine the solo cast being improved. As Solomon himself, Maarten Engeltjes’ countertenor was rich, bright, ethereal and clear while still suggesting authority. His radiant voice was especially alluring in the encounters with the Queen in Act One. Authority at the opposite end of the vocal scale was provided by Ashley Riches, whose bass-baritone becomes more impressive every time I hear him, for all that his character (The Levite) is extraneous to the action and pretty much symbolises everything I struggle with in Handel. Joshua Ellicott, on the other hand, made a lot out of the little that Zadok the priest has to do, and his beautiful tenor, full of juicy tone and agile technique, was revelatory, an example of how wonderful this music can sound when it is sung with proper lyricism. Elizabeth Watts’ soprano gleamed from bottom to top, sounding especially alluring in the love music for Solomon’s queen. Finer still, however, was Anna Dennis, whose soprano was every bit as beautiful, but she communicated the language to even greater effect, showing herself to be a spellbinding storyteller as well as a wonderful singer. The Queen of Sheba’s evocation of the lily and the “op’ning rose” can rarely have sounded so alluring.

Perhaps the greatest accolades should go to the chorus, however, who continued their recent run of excellent form with an impeccably enunciated, perfectly pitched performance that was sensitive to every line of text. Their opening number moved from a football chant into a dance of polyphony, and they were full of D major vigour for the choruses with trumpets and drums. They could then produce gorgeous soft tone for the love music, and every line was articulated with brilliant clarity through the complexity of “Praise the Lord.”

The audience’s ovation was warm and, despite my reservations, I was happy at the end. I’d have been every bit as happy if it’d had 30 minutes shaved off, but as a performance of what’s actually in the score, this was pretty much perfect.

****1