Edition Kloster Maulbronn
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2003.
Michal: Nancy Argenta, soprano
Merab: Laurie Reviol, soprano
David: Michael Chance, countertenor
Jonathan: Mark LeBrocq, tenor
Abner, High Priest, Witch from Endor, Amalekite: Michael Berner, tenor
Saul: Stephen Varcoe, bass
Samuel, Doeg: Steffen Balbach, bass
Hannoversche Hofkapelle (on period instruments)
Conductor: Jürgen Budday
(Recorded live at Klosterkirche Maulbronn on 28th and 29th September 2002.)
With soloists including Michael Chance, Stephen Varcoe, and Nancy Argenta, this Saul ought to arouse the curiosity of most Handel aficionados. This is the fourth Handel oratorio recording to have been made at Maulbronn Monastary (near Stuttgart) under the competent direction of Jürgen Budday. The previous volumes included abridged versions of Jephtha with Emma Kirkby and Julian Podger on fine form, and Samson with David Thomas and Michael Chance giving characteristic if not flawless performances. The last was Judas Maccabaeus, arguably the most consistent of the K&K recordings so far.
All those three, like this new Saul, are by no means as terrible as the tag “Live recording” might imply. The recordings are a shade too reverberant for small details to be heard clearly, but the acoustic is nonetheless attractive. The only disadvantage of the live recording is that occasionally a soloist’s blunders in performance can come back to haunt them. For example, a few of Marc LeBrocq’s higher phrases would not get past the editing process involved in a studio recording. The sound quality itself is excellent, and only mistakes during performance and the applause at the end of it reveal how naked it really is.
The Maulbronn Chamber Choir are O.K., and its English pronunciation only occasionally slips beyond repair. It is certainly well disciplined and blends reasonably well, although on this new Saul the soprano section struggles with tuning and tone. The orchestra play fairly well, but the violins are often scrappy. The opening chorus “How excellent, thy name O Lord” establishes the potential quality that this performance could have reached, with an impressive confection of swaggering stylishness. It is therefore a shame that the ensuing action is so often undermined by pregnant pauses between numbers, and some rather mystifying treatment of crucial moments such as a lack-lustre “David his ten thousands slew”.
A bored producer would certainly have shouted at everybody to get on with their pious and lumbering delivery of recitatives by showing a bit more commitment and dramatic awareness. Stephen Varcoe’s Saul would not throw a spear at anybody, and lacks the requisite jealousy, spitefulness, and portentous grandeur that the role demands. Michael Chance and “O Lord whose mercies numberless” would have once seemed an ideal combination, and his singing remains lyrical and intelligent even if not quite as effortless as it once was (by the way, the harp solo is performed on the theorbo, which is a better solution than not at all). Chance still has many of the fine attributes that made him arguably the best English countertenor of the 1980s and early 1990s, but he misses the mark in his other arias due to the general lack of theatre infecting the entire performance. Only in an especially good “Impious wretch” does Chance get the opportunity to shine like his admirers would wish.
Nancy Argenta, another fine baroque singer, makes little impact. Marc LeBrocq’s Jonathan sings sweetly but without much enthusiasm. Laurie Reviol’s Merab gets the job done. But the performers do not sound excited enough to be performing in one of Handel’s most compelling music dramas. Most of this cast would have had world-beating potential fifteen years ago and a recording like this would have been greatly desired, but one cannot help but feel disappointed by this belated effort.
Despite the flaws of the K&K Handel performances, they have previously demonstrated a commendable spirit and good intentions. This Saul simply fails to ever launch itself onto a sufficient level. There is nothing here to really offend Handel lovers, but the general lack of charisma and slow pacing – which is a distinct issue from Budday’s tempos, which are all fine – let the overall impact of the oratorio down considerably.
It is a crying shame that this recording is so disappointing, but I do not wish to imply that it is awfully bad: if I were to attend a local amateur performance of this standard I would be thrilled. As it is, Budday’s Saul is hardly the worst recording of the oratorio yet made: that dubious honour goes to the abrasive and incoherent version by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec). This is closely followed by Joachim Carlos Martini (Naxos), whose decision to perform Saul even more complete than Handel ever did fails to obscure the generally dismal quality of his performance. Yet Budday’s contribution cannot be safely recommended to anybody apart from those who already know the quirks of K&K’s recordings and are prepared to take the risk in order to enjoy the odd moment of illumination. Gardiner (Philips), Neumann (MD&G), and Ledger (Virgin) have all recorded Saul complete, and each present very different yet captivating experiences.
© David Vickers - March 2003
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