Theatre: Wiser than you'd think

Handel's Solomon Barbican Hall, London
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Handel's vision of Solomon (or at least that of his unknown librettist) settled on the biblical king's wisdom, his wedded bliss and the prosperity of his kingdom. Old Testament reports of his despotic tendencies, punitive tax systems and the forced labour used to build the temple in Jerusalem were conveniently overlooked, leaving the composer with a gilt-edged allegory on the magnificence and prosperity of Georgian England. First heard a few years after Culloden and shortly before the successful close of British military campaigns in Europe, Solomon's feel-good musical descriptions of the great Israeli king and his court reflected Handel's belief in enlightened civilisation.

Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort were brave to programme Solomon just as the seasonal onslaught of Messiahs has begun to pull Handel fans elsewhere. To say that McCreesh is ungainly falls short of the truth, his brand of baton-waving bordering on the reckless for any musician within stabbing distance and his irrepressible disco-dancing gyrations light years away from cool. But, for all his idiosyncrasies, there's a welcome spontaneity to his brand of music-making that freely transmits to those under his direction, memorably conveyed in Thursday's performance to the faultless fiddle section by leader Rachel Podger and eagerly taken up by the rest of the Consort.

Divided here into two equal groups, the chorus produced a lighter sound than that favoured elsewhere in the early music world, although their projection and commitment to the text were far from light-weight. It was only in the work's early choruses, set at a steady, even ponderous speed, that they sounded thin and passionless, while the frigid opening bass aria (Peter Harvey) also suggested that Messiah might have been a better bet. Andreas Scholl changed the odds with his delivery of Solomon's first recitative, followed by an entrancing account of "What though I trace each herb and flower", a masterclass in breath control, textual expression and musical intelligence.

McCreesh's dramatic pacing of the judgement scene was done to perfection, aided by richly coloured singing from Scholl and convincing characterisations from Alison Hagley and Susan Bickley as the two harlots. The counter-tenor's delight at delivering the word "faulchion" to an English audience without a trace of a German accent almost cracked Solomon's wise countenance.

Scholl's artistry was matched by that of his female companions: Hagley developed from the rather insipid queen consort of Part 1 into the genuinely touching voice of the wronged mother in Part 2; Bickley flourished as the Queen of Sheba, her arrival prefaced by a break-neck reading of Handel's familiar "Sinfony" and her great display arias distinguished by a pure, full-bodied tone. Charles Daniels took a heroic dash at Handel's unrelenting semiquavers in "See the tall palm", sticking to the rapid McCreesh tempo where less courageous tenors would have taken their leave.

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