Harry Bicket conducts Handel’s Solomon at Carnegie Hall

Handel

Solomon – Oratorio in three Acts to a libretto attributed to Thomas Morrell [sung in English, with English surtitles]

Solomon – Ann Hallenberg
Solomon’s Queen | First Harlot – Miah Persson
Queen of Sheba – Elena Villalón
Zadok – James Way
A Levite – Brandon Cedel
Second Harlot – Niamh O’Sullivan

The Clarion Choir

The English Concert
Harry Bicket


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 12 March, 2023
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Among Handel’s twenty-nine oratorios, one of the most spectacular is the pageant-like Solomon (1749), splendidly performed on this occasion. The anonymous libretto is based on stories in the First Book of Kings and the Second Book of Chronicles. The structure is unique, presenting Solomon’s reign not as a continuous narrative, but in a series of detached tableaux, each illustrating an element of his greatness: his religious devotion as he celebrates the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem; his love and devotion to his young queen – not love in any romantic sense as Solomon was reputed to have a harem of at least 700 wives and 300 concubines; his wisdom as he judges the dispute between two women over the legitimate motherhood of a child; and his wealth and wisdom in international diplomacy as he hosts the Queen of Sheba.

This concert performance made no attempt to stage Solomon as theater; the music – and the singing – provided an abundance of drama, with the chorus dispatching a dazzling array of pieces that display Handel’s extraordinary command of choral technique. Instead of standard four-part harmony, most of the choruses are scored for eight voice parts.

Conducting from the harpsichord – which included an orchestra with an expanded string section, flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, an organ, and a second harpsichord – Harry Bicket stressed elegance and restraint, choosing mostly moderate tempos and delicate textures throughout, played with great flexibility, lengthening the more subtle passages. The strings displayed extraordinary precision and sensitivity.

Ann Hallenberg brought the title role to life with self-assurance, elegance, and polished diction. In the double role of the Queen and First Harlot, Miah Persson showed great emotional range and her beautiful singing nearly outshone the others. Niamh O’Sullivan’s mezzo was suitably spiky as the villainous Second Harlot. As Zadok (a priest) James Way was eloquent. Brandon Cedel demonstrated an admirable command of dramatic recitative, and as the Queen of Sheba Elena Villalón was sensuous and radiantly toned.

The forty-member Clarion Choir was magnificent in all the varying moods, especially in the heroic back-and-forth calls of ‘Ye harps and cymbals sound’, the intimate and sensual ‘May no rash intruder’ (usually referred to as the ‘Nightingale Chorus’), and ‘Praise the lord with harp and tongue’, which brought this dazzling performance to a close.

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