~ HWV 53 ~

Harmonia mundi
- HMC901877.78 (2 CDs)
- HMC801877/78 (2 SACDs)
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2005.

Saul: Gidon Saks, baritone
Michal: Rosemary Joshua, soprano
David: Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor
Merab: Emma Bell, soprano
Jonathan: Jeremy Ovenden, tenor
High Priest, Witch of Endor: Michael Slattery, tenor
Amalekite, Abner: Finnur Bjarnason, tenor
Doeg, Samuel: Henry Waddington, bass

RIAS Kammerchor
Concerto Köln (on period instruments)
Conductor / Harpsichord: René Jacobs

(Recorded at the Telex Studio Berlin.)


As quite a few recordings have engagingly conveyed, Saul is an extraordinary masterpiece. Composed to a libretto by Charles Jennens and first performed at the King’s Theatre in London on 16 January 1739, it has musical variety and quality that makes it one of Handel’s finest scores. Handel seems to have been inspired by the best product of Jennens’ masterful literary mind: the characters, their relationships with each other and their responses to life-changing situations is as close as Handel’s oratorios get to Shakespearean tragedy. Saul is surely the most striking Biblical drama that the composer produced.

With such a fine work, it is artistically healthy for another new version to follow so soon on the heels of Paul McCreesh’s generally admired DG/Archiv recording. This new recording also raises some questions about whether the ends justify the means. Curiously, McCreesh’s ‘ends’ are less impressive than his exemplary faithfulness and awareness of the ‘means’. It is strange that a performance which more or less does everything right in theory is not sufficiently characterful or passionate. At the opposite end of the spectrum lays René Jacobs, neither a natural Handelian nor an honest crusader of the quest for ‘authentic’ performance. Jacobs puts dynamic effects in Mozart where Mozart did not want them, composes orchestral parts in Monteverdi where Monteverdi would not have required artificial sweeteners. Jacobs plays his usual havoc with Handel’s Saul.

The final movement of the overture is omitted (perhaps to help the allegedly ‘complete’ performance fit on to two discs), the organ solo in the third movement of the overture is transferred to the oboe - Handel initially thought about this in his autograph manuscript, but the reasons why he changed his mind about this are obvious: Handel was a celebrated virtuoso organist, the use of organ has a particular colour and effect that makes the Saul overture unique. Also, Handel’s decision to transfer the solo part to the organ – along with the counterpart organ solo movement to symbolise David’s wedding to Michal in Act II - explains why no external organ concertos were used with Saul at its first performance. Handel knew what he was doing when he changed his mind during the composition process, and I see no convincing justification for ignoring Handel’s more interesting solution.

The chorus ‘Along the monster the atheist strode’ is bizarrely allocated to a trio of solo singers. Combined with Jacobs taking this at a tempo far more impatient than the music implies, the effect is plainly unidiomatic and cannot be what Handel envisaged. Do such things matter? Well, yes – all the altos, tenors and basses from the choir performing this at an intelligent speed creates a fantastic musical allusion to Goliath’s giant strides. That is not good enough for Jacobs, who instead wants some sort of more extreme grotesque effect emphasised. It also important to note that Handel often uses the lower three chorus parts for special effect in his English choruses. So, time and again during the opening 15 minutes, we witness Jacobs prefering his own special effects to Handel’s.

Happily the rest of the performance settles down and Jacobs becomes happier to let Handel do the talking, alhtough two common Jacobsisms persist throughout the performance. Firstly, almost every recitative during the entire performance is preceded by Jacobs asking his continuo team to provide a fiddly twiddly introduction, as if somehow it enhances the development of the plot. It sounds ludicrous and contrived: the policy of over-elaborate (recomposed?) recitative ignores the stark possibility that Handel’s continuo team probably bashed out the chords in order to proceed to the next aria or chorus without being overly fussy about the cellist being given a solo flourish before the first chord is placed. Secondly, Jacobs seems to think that cadences – both choral and orchestral – during Handel’s English oratorios should sound like they were performed under Lully’s direction at Versailles. It is hard to believe that Handel wanted so many major thirds in cadences to trill from the fourth (‘french-style’). Sometimes the effect of this is simply ridiculous – for example, ‘ten thousand praises are his due’ has a ghastly trill on the last syllable.

Although René Jacobs’ wilfully inconoclastic bad habits are deplorable to purists (I count myself among that outcast tribe), I cannot remember enjoying his Handel as much as this. Indeed, the most frustrating aspect of the flaws mentioned above is that every single one could and should have been avoided. This performance of Saul has everything else that counts: drama, committment, passion, determination, colour, soloists who care about their characters and a conductor who ensures that no pregnant pauses occur where the drama should flow (Jacobs’ management of Saul’s ‘With rage I shall burst’ is wonderfully wild and menacing). Lawrence Zazzo is on excellent form as David. His ‘O King, your favours with delight I take’ features some beautiful high sustained notes. Some countertenors who have recorded this role excel at the sweet gentle aspects of the character, yet Zazzo is the only David on disc who can match both McCreesh’s Andreas Scholl for vocal beauty and Gardiner’s Derek Lee Ragin for operatic heroism in the duet ‘At persecution I can laugh’ and the aria ‘Impious wretch’. I am not sure why Harmonia mundi edited Disc 1 so that ‘O Lord whose mercies numberless’ is on the same track as its preceding recitative, whilst the harp solo – a bit over ornamented for my taste – is isolated on the next track. Surely they should be together as two parts of the same piece?

Gidon Saks excellently captures Saul’s anger, violence, tension and bluster – he is a more extrovert villain than the disciplined nastiness of McCreesh’s Neal Davies. The scene in which Saul turns on his own son Jonathan is done here with chillingly convincing dramatic potency. Emma Bell provides her most rounded and convincing vocal performance of a Handel role as the mean-spirited Merab. Her cutting remarks cut deeply in ‘What abject thoughts’ and ‘Capricious man’, yet without the singing being too forced and uncomfortable with Handel’s writing (as it often is on her recent Handel recital disc on Linn). The role of Merab’s nice sister Michal is harder to make interesting, but Rosemary Joshua makes the most of her opportunities, including a feisty ‘No; let the guilty tremble’. Jeremy Ovenden’s Jonathan reminds me of Robert Tear, with technical security never in doubt but vocal beauty less vital than the clarity of the words. His vowells often sound pinched and nasal when he is acting an animated line, but he produces some beautiful singing when required (‘No, cruel father, no’). The High Priest is a bit of a thankless role, with significant libretto texts set to some comparatively routine music, but Michael Slattery over compensates for this by hamming-up his other contribution as the Witch of Endor. I wonder if Handel wanted the Witch to be more inclined to sing something closer to his notation and without resorting to pantomime antics.

The RIAS-Kammerchor are efficient yet it sounds a bit too distant from the microphones. Jacobs swift tempi – and his occasional grunting along which you can hear if you listen with headphones – tends to prevent them from matching the eloquence and sheer quality of Gardiner’s The Monteverdi Choir or the disciplined polish of McCreesh’s The Gabrieli Consort. The RIAS-Kammerchor’s delivery of Handel’s more sustained lyrical choral writing does not quite match the best English choirs, or even Peter Neumann’s superb Kölner Kammerchor. However, their animated ‘Envy, eldest born of hell’ is thrilling. Concerto Köln plays with a snappy bite. In solo arias the orchestra somtimes forces a singer to keep up with it when the pace and opportunities to breathe ought to be dictated by the singer instead, although it is good to hear a baroque orchestra attack Handel’s notes with uncompromising fervour.

So do the ends justify the means? They cannot because there are serious problems in this performance regarding musical decisions. But if these frequent blots had been replaced with more sensible decisions based on Handel’s score this might well have been the perfect Saul. Jacobs’ quirks and flaws remain serious problems that one fervently hopes will not become widely accepted by other performers. Saul is such a magnificent oratorio that a serious Handel lover need not confine themselves to one recording. Jacobs has provided an invigorated new look at a beloved friend, but has not given us the definitive only version you’ll ever need. Recordings of Saul by Mackerras, Ledger, Gardiner, Neumann and McCreesh remain fully relevant.

© David Vickers - October 2005

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