SolomonAside from the orchestral opening of Act III (“The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”), Handel’s old testament oratorio Solomon is nowadays relatively unknown. Although written in only six weeks (between May 5 and June 13, 1748), it’s still every bit as good as The Messiah, full of magnificent arias and choruses. Of course (as Jeremy Summerly in Building a Library points out) the librettist takes liberties of omission: Act 1’s portrayal of the completion of the new temple and Solomon’s marital bliss only works if his other 699 wives and 300 concubines are ignored – as they are.

We’re coming to the end of rehearsals at the Oxford Bach choir in preparation for the concert at the Sheldonian Theatre (where Handel himself once conducted) on Saturday, December 7th. Unusually, the title role will be sung by a mezzo-soprano, rising star Hanna Hipp. The orchestra is the London Mozart Players, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

In the fast double choruses, such as the opening “Your Harps and Trumpets Sound,” and the especially tricky “Shake the Dome” in Act III, Handel takes full dramatic advantage from the complex interplay of the eight vocal lines. But it’s some of the calmer, cumulative fugal numbers that stick in my mind, particularly “Throughout the Land” (also set for double chorus), which illustrates its subject (the wandering of the Israelites) through the inexorable harmonic journey of the music, which ebbs and flows beautifully between major and minor, with many modal inflexions. The opening recalls an earlier style of counterpoint, beginning with the canonical entries of the tenor and soprano both starting on F, followed by the altos and basses both starting on Bb. And throughout, four part unison entries of the subject are the norm, unlike a more conventional fugue where the subjects typically imitate each other using different piches. These unison entries serve to emphasise our arrival at the various harmonic signposts of the journey – C major at bar 33, then A minor (bar 48), D minor (bar 63), G minor (bar 79), then back home to the tonic F at bar 87 where the main theme returns triumphantly in the bass.

There are plenty other highlights, such as the melodic final choral number of Act 1, “May no rash intruder”, often referred to as the Nightingale Chorus because of the imitated birdsong in the flutes. And there’s also the centerpiece of Act II, in which Solomon’s wisdom resolves a dispute between two women over who is the mother of a baby. The compassionate aria “Can I see my infant gor’d”, reveals the true mother in response to his suggestion that the live child should be divided up between them through the sword. Handel had only recently turned his back on producing Italian opera in London in response to changing fashions. But even in the course of a sacred oratorio, he never lost his sense of the dramatic