Wednesday 19 September 2012

CD Review - Handel's Saul

Handel's Saul has been reasonably lucky on disc. John Eliot Gardiner's recording from 1989 with Alistair Miles as Saul is still something of a bench-mark, and Joachim Carlos Martini's 1997 recording for Naxos has its interesting dramatic moments. Now the Sixteen, under conductor Harry Christophers, have recorded the work after performing it with the same principals at the Barbican last year. The recording is based on the edition of the work by the late Anthony Hicks and the work is performed complete. In running time, Christophers comes in at just 4 minutes longer than Gardiner.

Saul was Handel's fourth English oratorio, and the first libretto that Charles Jennens wrote for Handel. In many ways it was one of the best texts that Handel had set so far. Jennens uses the Biblical story, but condenses it considerably. The result hangs together better as drama than some of the other oratorio libretti that Handel would set. The Cd booklet includes a truly fascinating article by Ruth Smith about the librettos various undercurrents, political, dramatic and erotic. Particularly striking was her description of how Jennens and Handel between them were true to the homo-erotic nature of David and Jonathan's relationship.

The role of David, was of course, written in the treble clef. Anthony Hicks believed that the role was intended to be sung by the mezzo-soprano Marchesini, but her illness forced a gentleman named Russell to take the role. This has constantly tickled people's ideas, the fancy that Russell was a counter-tenor but in all likelihood he was an actor singing at tenor pitch; for revivals Handel always used a female mezzo-soprano in the role.

Handel deliberately reduced the role of Saul to its dramatic elements, reducing the character's arias and making recitative Saul's main means of communication. Christopher Purves is compelling in the title role. There are moments which are beautifully and nobly sung, displaying great beauty of voice. He sings with a fine sense of Handelian line, though he does sometimes distort it for expressive purposes. He balances this beauty with a feeling of danger and Saul's unnerving anger. I remember Purves's account of Saul being compelling in the concert hall and it remains so on disc, captured to a nice degree.

Sarah Connolly is quite simply one of the finest interpreters of Handel's mezzo-soprano roles around today. She imbues David with great dignity and simplicity, shaping the musical line with care. Her account of O Lord, whose mercies is both moving and beautiful, Connolly has a way of filling the vocal line richly, whilst preserving its integrity. But her anger is equally on show in act 2 as well in Such haughty beauties. Then duet with Joelle Harvey's Michal is a little delight. Finally in act 3, anger whips out stunningly in Impious wretch, perhaps David's showiest number.

Having recently reviewed Paul McCreesh's recording of Elijah, with Robert Murray and found the vibrato in Murray's upper register rather disturbing, I approached this recording with care. Fascinatingly, despite the fact that the two were made within about six months of each other, on this disc Murray's voice is caught rather more sympathetically. There is still a vibrato, but it is here rather more expressive and by no means as disturbing, though the sense of line is still sometimes compromised. Here he makes a noble and notable Jonathan, impetuous and nicely dramatic.

I am not convinced that the recording has managed to capture Elizabeth Atherton and Joelle Harvey quite as well. They both have moments of instability in the voice. Perhaps I would not have worried so much, but neither is completely compelling. Neither role, Michal or Merab, is strongly written, but Atherton and Harvey to have contrasting voices, which helps on record. Harvey does manage to convey Michal's essential niceness and her love for David. Atherton is a bit uneven when displaying Merab's haughty anger, but when the character settles down so does Atherton's voice.

The smaller roles are all excellently taken by members of the choir. Mark Dobell makes a mellifluous high priest, a role which can often be snipped in live performance. Dobell manages to make the character not seem just a prosy bore. Jeremy Budd is a wonderfully characterful Witch of Endor, without resorting to distortion or over doing the characterisation. And Stuart Young has a nicely dark voice as Samuel. Eamonn Dougan is Abner, Ben Davies is Doeg, with Tom Raskin as the unfortunate Amalekite.

This is a great choral work, and the Sixteen are on strong and characterful form, providing some very fine choral singing. The chorus vary in their function during the work, they open as jubilating Israelites but later on in choruses such as Envy, eldest born of hell, they are commenting on the action. This latter chorus receives a impressive performance from the chorus.

With its Dead March and plethora of Symphonies, the piece has plenty of work for the orchestra and the orchestra of the Sixteen give some crisply detailed playing. There is some lovely harp playing from Frances Kelly and plenty of other notable individual instrumental contributions.

Harry Christophers controls all this with apparent ease, letting the music flow, allowing Handel and Jennens's drama to speak.

Christophers enables the drama, without every trying to turn the work into an opera; this is very firmly oratorio, with its own distinctive pacing created, in part by the choruses and the extra symphonies. But the big reason for getting the disc is the memorable performances by Purves and Connolly as Saul and David. The other soloists, whilst not quite at their level, provide strong support.

This recording seems set to become the one which is the one most highly recommendable for this work.

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759) – Saul
Saul – Christopher Purves (bass)
David – Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Jonathan – Robert Murray (tenor)
Merab – Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Michal – Joelly Harvey (soprano)
High Priest – Mark Dobell (tenor)
Witch of Endor – Jeremy Budd (tenor)
Ghost of Samuel – Stuart Young (bass)
Abner – Eamonn Dougan (baritone)
Doeg – Ben Davies (bass)
Amalekite – Tom Raskin (bass)

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)

Recorded St. Augustine's Kilburn, London, January 2012
CORO COR16163 3CD's [1:13:36, 48:19, 40:44)

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