22 Aug 2005


Any new recording of Handel under the baton of Rene Jacobs has to be greeted with both respect and interest, even if the absolute need for another recording of this well-represented oratorio is debatable. Perhaps some Handel scholars would argue with that and are still discussing the precedence of the current available recordings — the older Gardiner, the Neumann, or the more recent McCreesh for instance. So, one presumes, this recording of "Saul" on the Harmonia Mundi label must be intended to either trump those three or to at least offer a viable fourth choice for those who prefer their Handel oratorios as complete as possible. And a plus point is that the entire work is squeezed onto just 2 CDs with a total running time of 2 hrs 30 minutes, accompanied by some stimulating liner notes by Pierre Degott that are both informative and absorbing for the non-specialist consumer.

Does it succeed in surpassing the current competition? Instrumentally there's certainly a case for saying so. For instance, in the opening symphony we are treated to bright jewelled textures, with true Allegro tempi and some wonderful sound balancing work by the engineers in the Larghetto and Andante sections between the winds and strings where every instrument is faithfully reported. This level of playing and recording continues throughout. The 40-strong Concerto Koeln sound as good as one rightly expects of them under this director, with perhaps only the winds and brass shining a little brighter than the rest of this exemplary crew. There was one small detail that I especially enjoyed: the carillon is a delight in the opening of scene 3 where its crystalline notes contrast delightfully with the chorus's heavier wedges of sound. I also relished a relatively elevated and clear-textured "Dead March" — no lumpen morbidity here, rather a majestic and calm portrayal of inevitable death that leads inexorably into the chorus's smoothly-sung Elegy. Jacobs is somewhat renowned for taking a degree of liberty with some works, but here I found little that jarred (at least on the instrumental side) and indeed I heard a piece of music new to me in a recitative and accompagnato in Act 1, ably sung by the High Priest (Michael Slattery). Presumably this was one of those "pick and mix" elements that Mr. Handel was prone to add or delete depending on circumstances.

Vocally, I'm not so sure that this recording achieves to the same extent, but it certainly offers a rewarding alternative, and one's final choice of recording (if choice one must make) will surely rest on subjective preferences for certain voices, and certain elements of choral production. Indeed, my first reaction to the 36-strong RIAS-Kammerchor's opening lines was one of slight disappointment at the diction and the English ... a definite Germanic vowel sound is evident and it doesn't help a distinctly muddy delivery of the faster lines which continued right through to the final chorus of Act Three. I found myself straining to catch the words — and that was with the libretto to hand. No such problems with any of the soloists however: all eight are crisp and clear throughout.

If I had to give a "best in show" award to a soloist, it would have to be to Emma Bell as Saul's feisty daughter Merab. In her first character-defining aria "What abject thoughts....." she displays a wonderful mix of spot-on coloratura and warm incisive tone with some quite thrilling ornamentation which pins the listener to the seat and declares: this lady is not for trifling with. However, as her character softens, or at least expands, we can luxuriate in one of the most gorgeously expressive soprano voices singing today. She is simply superb in the quietly contemplative "Author of peace" where a feeling of controlled power is complemented by a rich long line and exquisite, minimal, decorations which illustrate perfectly her gradual change of heart.

Jeremy Ovenden sings the part of Jonathan with a no-nonsense, crisp characterisation which from the start tells us this man is no puppet prince, but one of honour and courage. As ever in this work, one wishes that he didn't disappear as early as he does. If Ovenden's more thoughtful passages lack a certain elegance of line perhaps better found in other recordings, this is still a very convincing performance. His dramatic sense is evident — one can hear this quite clearly in Act Two, for instance, in his resolute, if intimidated, confrontation with the bullying King Saul as he attempts to protect his friend and thus incurs the royal wrath.

The role of that friend, the young warrior David, is sung by Lawrence Zazzo. This American countertenor has been working extensively in Handel productions on the continent of Europe in the past few years so it's not difficult to see why Jacobs chose him for this recording. Vocally, he seems to occupy a place somewhere between the radically-different styles of the two recent starry "Davids" of note, Andreas Scholl on the Archiv recording with McCreesh and David Daniels' live portrayals in Edinburgh and Munich, but without their sheer class across the board, or quite yet establishing a truly personal sound of his own. He has a surprising tendency to shrillness in the faster, louder passages, as on the plus side his voice is warm and elegant in slower passages and very sweet in the highest registers. If he doesn't sound completely at ease with some of the ornaments he sings then maybe it's because some are definitely quirky, if not downright contentious: have a listen to the final repeats of the words "his wounded soul" from the aria "O Lord, whose mercies numberless" in Act 1, if you don't believe me. However, this is still a performance of merit, questionable ornamentation notwithstanding.

Having enjoyed her live performance in Munich so much, I was just a little disappointed in this Michal of Rosemary Joshua's — perhaps her lighter-hued voice is just ill-matched with that of Bell's and comes off worst in comparison. For all her undoubted technical mastery of the genre and supremely elegant singing, I felt this was not Joshua at her very best — something was lacking. Having said that, a slightly below-par Joshua is still a force to be reckoned with and she is still a Michal-of-choice for many Handelians. Just listen to the way she fashions her voice to reflect her resolute defence of David and defiance of Saul's death threats in "No, no let the guilty tremble" — regained determination, line, crisp diction and heartfelt emotion, all found from within the dancing rhythms of Handel's music and Jennen's text.

In the title role — always one dependent on strong recitative singing with so few actual airs to display one's gifts — Gidon Saks is a worthy choice and his obvious experience in making words count shines through, although I'm not sure he quite "carries" the true spirit of this unhappy king in an expressive sense. One gets the feeling of rage, and jealousy, but not so much of his decline into mental disorder in the face of the irrational powers driving him from within. He also tends to sing the music line by line, rather than making sense of the poetry — phrases just don't flow naturally and there are odd pauses between words where there should not be. Because of this tendency, I have to admit to preferring the Saul of, for instance, either Neal Davies or Alistair Miles.

Three impressive young singers shine brightly in the remaining lesser, but always dramatically important, six roles of High Priest and Witch (Michael Slattery), Doeg and Samuel (Henry Waddington), and the Amalekite and Abner (Finnur Bjarnason). Of the three, Michael Slattery makes the biggest impression, if only for the sheer dramatic range of his singing. Not all will approve of his almost pantomime-witch portrayal of Saul's medium to Samuel — his suave and robust tenor of the High Priest is contorted into a lisping, almost falsetto simpering sound which may be a step too far for some although it certainly worked in context for me. In contrast, the bass-baritone of Henry Waddington is steadily consistent and he sings Samuel's doom-laden air of retribution to the despairing king with appropriate gravitas and textual awareness. The deaths of Saul and his son are foretold with a gentle decrescendo, all the more chilling in its subtlety, on the final words "The Lord hath said it: He will make it good."

So, we have another excellent modern recording of Handel's "Saul" under the always intelligent and responsive direction of Rene Jacobs, even if it doesn't quite — by virtue of some variable vocal solo work — manage to establish a new benchmark for this most dramatic of oratorios.

© Sue Loder 2005