Solomon – Overture; The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
Chandos Anthem No.11 – Let God Arise Boyce
Solomon, a serenata
Mary Bevan (soprano) & James Gilchrist (tenor)
Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
OAE/Steven Devine – Handel and Boyce – Solomon – with Mary Bevan and James Gilchrist
Thursday, June 12, 2014 Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Curtis Rogers
Considering that Handel so dominated musical life in 18th-century England, this was a valuable opportunity to hear a neglected work by one of the native composers in his shadow, even if it is a little cruel to juxtapose the two. With William Boyce’s Solomon being dusted down, it clearly proved irresistible to preface it with ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ from Handel’s far more famous treatment of the subject. This and the Overture were given stately readings under Steven Devine.
Before leaving Handel, the Orchestra and Choir of the Enlightenment performed the Eleventh Chandos Anthem, ‘Let God Arise’. Few individuals in England in the 18th-century could muster an equal group of instrumental and choral forces as those of James Brydges, First Duke of Chandos. Even so, the Anthems Handel wrote for his chapel at Canons were still necessarily limited, and the performance of Let God Arise here was commensurate with that context. After a dainty and easy-going Sinfonia the Choir entered with a decisive attack on the opening words and delivered what sounded almost like a contemptuous gaggle of laughter on “scatter’d”, contemplating what will happen to God’s enemies.
James Gilchrist sang ‘Like as the smoke vanisheth’ with suitable intangibility. Mary Bevan replaced Lucy Crowe at short notice, and although her aria sounded rather subdued, this was not entirely out of sorts with the interpretation of the Anthem generally. Devine ensured the Choir gathered the necessary momentum in its sequence at the end of the work, which already looks ahead to the larger dramatic canvases of the oratorios.
Boyce composed Solomon in 1742, and therefore predates Handel’s treatment by six years. It is in fact a rather different work from the latter’s oratorio, since it does not pursue a dramatic narrative as such. Instead it sets an adaptation of portions from ‘Song of Songs’ – attributed to Solomon in the Bible. There is the romantic idyll at the end of Act One of Handel’s work, but that is not the main part of it. Boyce’s ‘serenata’ would make a better comparison with Handel’s Acis and Galatea or L’Allegro.
Boyce’s Solomon is a charming work, but not a great one. For all its Handelian leanings, it does not achieve the same level of musical invention or vigour. That said, Boyce draws clear contrasts among the succession of arias and recitatives. Gilchrist and Bevan offered distinctive characterisations. For the most part, Gilchrist was nobly warm and assured, very far from being cocksure, though at the beginning of Part Two he clearly conveyed the amorous urgings which stir just below the surface of the music. Another highlight was the depiction of shivering cold, recalling the ‘Frost Scene’ in Purcell’s King Arthur.
Following the Handel, there was more radiance in Bevan’s execution of her responses in the female part of Boyce’s extended dialogue, particularly commendable given the short time she had had to learn it. Understanding that this is not an opera or oratorio, she sang with brightness and tenderness, without artificial or exaggerated musical gestures. The Choir showed similar control in its handful of numbers, bringing out the erotic undercurrents of this work, but in a quietly artful way, rather than with rampant or indecent abandon. Both as conductor and harpsichordist, Devine presided over a balanced and coherent account of this delightful celebration of love.
Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)