~ HWV 53 ~

DG/Archiv Produktion 474 510-2
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2002.
Released in 2004.

Michal: Nancy Argenta, soprano
Merab: Susan Gritton, soprano
David: Andreas Scholl, countertenor
Jonathan: Mark Padmore, tenor
Saul: Neal Davies, bass
High Priest / Witch of Endor: Paul Agnew, tenor

Gabrieli Consort (choir)
Gabrieli Players (on period instruments)
Conductor: Paul McCreesh



Saul is surely without parallel as a two-and-a-half hour musical essay on mania in a ruler. Paul McCreesh uses an edition as scholarly as the booklet notes provided by Ruth Smith in her exploration of the multiple meanings of Saul. Unusually, there is no ‘guide’ to the music in her essay, which is not a loss as it means we get more insights into what Charles Jennens, the librettist, and Handel intended. 

McCreesh directs his band with great success, underpinning moments of anguish in the oratorio, of which there are many, with great sweeps of ardent string sound; he accentuates moments of passionate utterance with sharp stabbing accompaniment. This is very fine Handel playing by an orchestra of the size which the composer used. Note the gorgeous rasp of the trombones in the ‘Hallelujah’. The overture’s Larghetto and Andante Larghetto movements are particularly beguiling. Jennens balanced the theme of rejoicing at the beginning of Part 1 with the Elegy in Part 3, and McCreesh ensures faultlessly that this contrast is brought out to the full. This is as good an Epinikion[1] as you’re going to hear. The opening chorus ‘How excellent’ lifts us out of our seats,  although the absence of boys from the choral sound is the one element that fails ‘authenticity’.[2]  

With exceptionally little recitative, Saul offers few opportunities for the soloists to characterize their parts outside the airs and ensembles. This proves no handicap here, and a chief recommendation of this recording is the considerable strength of the soloists. At their first entrance, each singer strikes the ear with an acute sense of mise-en-scene. Nancy Argenta gives an affecting characterization of Saul’s second daughter, sweetly ‘feminine’ (as Handel intended), and the sort of woman a warrior would wish to woo. David, being red-blooded, naturally falls for this Michal. Susan Gritton’s truthful interpretation of Merab, on the other hand, is catty and snootily haughty towards the flawlessly noble David (Andreas Scholl), as she counsels her family against allying itself with the low-born victor. 

Saul (Neal Davies) is fretful; Jonathan (Mark Padmore) a dutiful friend. The blessing of David and Jonathan’s friendship by the High Priest (Paul Agnew) is finely done. David receives the most tuneful rejection conceivable from Susan Gritton. Sibling rivalry is sharp and unpleasant as Gritton and Argenta respond in their very different ways to marriage with David; I thoroughly enjoyed Gritton giving Saul some ‘grief’ (angst) in ‘Capricious man’. The interplay between singers creates smooth-flowing encounters without drama-killing pauses. Of the many felicitous touches by McCreesh of special note are the bass line in ‘Fell Rage’, the High Priest’s dissertation on the restoration of harmony, and Scholl’s finest ‘O Lord, whose Mercies’ to date. An excellent touch is the earnest choral cry of “Shame” at the end of Part 1 which is carried forward to the first word, “Envy”, of Part 2. Wonderful stuff!  

Of merit, along with the masterly characterization of family tiffs goes the orchestra’s splendid full-string tone, especially in the martial and concertante movements. All the lyrical items charm the soul, and the militant music rouses the passions without fail - even in such familiar music. The wedding ‘concerto’ is enlivened by the organist Timothy Roberts’ improvizations. With so few airs and recitatives, Davies has his work cut out to make the title part dramatic, but he relishes the cameos on offer. He makes Saul crabbed and peremptory in an entirely convincing portrait of mental instability. Later, there is a delightful incident when Michal covers up for the absent Saul with an-almost spoken ‘Say he is sick’. After Merab’s persuasive reconciliation to David’s goodness, ‘O Author’, the Feast music is as much a brutal depiction of Saul’s derangement as of marital bliss. 

Part 3 must be one of music’s grandest pieces of architecture—not a note is superfluous, and McCreesh directs an excellently paced performance. The long-anticipated focus on Saul’s shattered mind is made unrelentingly dramatic. The witch’s summons to Samuel (Jonathan Lemalu) is chilling; those four continuo quavers that descend into “Thou and thy Sons” are horrific; the March, which defies analysis, is heart-rendingly performed. And we get two bonuses: the six bars that Handel cut to make way for the Dead March, and the soprano and orchestra lead-in to ‘Eagles were not so swift’. (It would be good to hear some cut airs, such as ‘Fly, fly malicious Spirit’, ‘The Time at length’, and ‘Ye Men of Judah’, but as Handel cut them McCreesh is not to be blamed.) The most difficult air to bring off during the Elegy must be ‘O let it not in Gath be heard’, yet Padmore, with the strings of the Gabrieli Players ardently supporting, compellingly urges a nation to keep its head. The chorus of the Gabrieli Consort bring to Handel’s unique form of choral stretto a clear articulation and a sustained fervour which crescendos in intensity with each entry. However, laurels go to the whole ensemble for an electrifying rendering of the last chorus, a call to action, not broody deliberation on loss. This recording deserves to become an instant favourite and should make many new friends for Handel’s music.

[1] The ‘Epinikion’ is the opening scene representing the Israelite celebration after David kills Goliath. [Ed.]
[2] Philip Ledger’s recording of Saul features boy trebles in the choir, and this was recently reissued on Virgin. [Ed.]


© Les Robarts - March 2004

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