Handel: Solomon

Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

St John's Smith Square, 12 May 2007 3.5 stars

Ann Murray

The much-awaited performance of Handel's Solomon at this year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music was preceded by bad luck. For personal reasons soprano Veronica Cangemi withdrew, thus Joanna Lunn and Ann Murray stepped in at short notice; and presumably not long before the performance conductor Ivor Bolton became indisposed. He was replaced by Timothy Brown, but evidently time was so short that there was no written information about him included in the programme. Artistic Director Lyndsay Kemp had the unenviable task of announcing the change of conductor to the capacity audience.

Timothy Brown is the director of the London-based professional chamber choir English Voices which took part, as scheduled, in the performance. Clearly Brown was familiar with the score of Solomon but conducting the whole performance (and not only the choral numbers) at such short notice was a heroic contribution. Under the circumstances it might be churlish to complain about anything, but Brown's tempi on the fast side seemed to indicate musical conviction rather than the results of the particular circumstance. The virtuoso players of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin coped brilliantly with any and all speeds, as did all the singers, but I would have appreciated more relaxed tempi for the bass aria 'Praise ye the Lord', Solomon's 'What tho' I trace each herb and flow'r', the duet 'Thrice blest be the king', the chorus 'Music spread thy voice around', the bass aria 'Pious king and virtuous queen' and the magnificent double chorus 'Praise the Lord with harp and tongue'.

There was a slight clash of styles throughout the performance. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is a baroque orchestra, which uses period instruments and plays in baroque style. The English Voices, on the other hand, sing beautifully but in a more traditional full-blooded choral style. In the double chorus 'With pious heart' the singers performed as if in a grand opera while the orchestra stuck to its baroque guts (in more ways than one). The chorus 'Throughout the land' manifested similar contrasts of styles.

Of the solo singers, two - soprano Mojca Erdman and bass Christopher Purves - seemed to be unaware of the baroque style and, it so happens, they turned out competent but boring performances. Soprano Joanna Lunn and mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, both last minute replacements, performed with intelligent style, clear diction and exciting drama. Particular praise must go to mezzo-soprano Murray who took on a soprano part (presumably to save the day). Tenor James Gilchrist sang magnificently and with true respect towards the composer. Countertenor Tim Mead gave us everything we could have wished for: musicality, voice, style and drama.

Though the continuo cellist disappointed with her persistent accents on far too many notes, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin fielded excellent players. The bassoon solos were remarkable and the flute passages were breath-taking (especially in the soprano aria 'Will the sun forget to streak', where two flutes played the obbligato part in unison). The strings produced a warm tone as well as virtuosity, the horns and trumpets were rock solid, and the timpanist triumphed in his few but important moments.

The performance was greatly appreciated by the enthusiastic audience. Full marks to the Lufthansa Festival management for saving the day in spite of three replacements.

By Agnes Kory