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CD Review

George Frideric Handel

  • Solomon, HWV 67
  • Love in Bath – Suite
Elsie Morison, soprano
Lois Marshall, soprano
Alexander Young, tenor
John Cameron, baritone
* Ilse Hollweg, soprano
Beecham Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
EMI Gemini 586516-2 2CDs 150m ADD
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There was a time, not long ago, when Baroque scores were treated as a folio of performance suggestions, not as the letter of the law. Performers felt free to add music or (more often) to take it away, and to do other things which were quite different from what the composer originally had in mind. Sir Thomas Beecham had no qualms about performing surgery on the music of George Frideric Handel, a composer he absolutely adored. No disrespect was intended. In fact, Beecham loved Handel so much, he wanted everyone else to love him too. That meant making him more palatable for modern tastes – bigger and leaner, at the same time.

By today's standards, what Beecham did to Solomon in his 1955-56 recording of the oratorio is a crime. He cut a great deal of music (the episode of Solomon settling the child custody dispute between two harlots is totally excised), moved other numbers around, made Solomon into a baritone (Handel wrote the part for a countertenor), and beefed up the scoring. The result represents the English choral tradition at its best, albeit also its most Victorian. Even at the time of its release, several critics cried "foul," although the records sold well, especially when they were reissued on the budget Seraphim label.

Beecham's Solomon was not reissued on CD until recently. First, the Somm label did it, at full price, and with no coupling. Now, almost immediately after, EMI Classics has done it at a super-budget price (this is a reissue in the "Gemini" series), and with the coupling of Love in Bath. It's a pretty obvious choice between the two.

Inauthentic as it is, this performance is treasurable, and it brims over with the conductor's love. Every note of the score – what's left of it, that is – is filled with life and excitement. The soloists – a classic line-up for the era – sing superbly, and with reasonable sympathy for Handelian style. Stand-outs for me include Young's "Golden columns fair and bright" and Marshall's "Will the sun forget to streak," both in the latter half of the score. The Beecham Choral Society sings lustily, and without the crispness and accuracy we would expect from today's more authentic performances and recordings. Nevertheless, the sheer force of their sound is astonishing, and the separation of the double choirs across the two speakers creates dramatic effects. This is a new digital remastering. It cannot hide the roughness of an early stereo recording, but the sound does not get in the way of the performance.

Handel arranged Love in Bath from several Handel scores. As the ballet The Great Elopement, this was Beecham doing to Handel what Rosenthal did to Offenbach in Gaïtè Parisienne. It's very entertaining – pour a glass of sherry for this one! – but even further removed from Handel than Beecham's Solomon. EMI Classics reissued this recording on CD about 15 years ago, and it is good to have it back, for those who didn't acquire it the first time. It is a perfect coupling for Solomon. The original sessions were spread across several dates in 1956, 1957, and 1959.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle