Saul; Alexander's Feast; The Choice of Hercules

Virgin Black Box 562 1182
5 CDs
budget price
Reissued  in 2002.

Saul (HWV 53)
Saul: Thomas Allen, baritone
Jonathan: Robert Tear, tenor
David: Paul Esswood, countertenor
Abner: Charles Daniels, tenor
Merab: Sally Burgess, soprano
Michal: Margaret Marshall, soprano
Doeg: Gareth Morrell, bass
Witch of Endor: Martyn Hill, tenor
Apparition of Samuel: Matthew Best, bass
An Amalekite: Christopher Gillett, tenor
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
English Chamber Orchestra (on modern instruments)
Philip Ledger, conductor

Recorded at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, between July 1979 and January 1980. Not previously available on CD.

Alexander's Feast or The Power of Music (HWV 75)
Helen Donath, soprano
Sally Burgess, soprano
Robert Tear, tenor
Thomas Allen, bass
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
English Chamber Orchestra (on modern instruments)
Philip Ledger, conductor

Recorded at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in July 1978. Not previously available on CD.

The Choice of Hercules (HWV 69)
Pleasure: Heather Harper, soprano
Virtue: Helen Watts, mezzo-soprano
Hercules: James Bowman, countertenor
Attendant on Pleasure: Robert Tear, tenor
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (on modern instruments)
Philip Ledger, conductor

Recorded at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in December 1974. Not previously available on CD.

In light of Handel’s own connections with Oxford University in the early 1730s and the ensuing performance tradition of his works that was quickly established there, it is ironic that Cambridge have possessed the more vibrant Handelian tradition in subsequent generations (it also boasts the superior collection of Handel musical sources thanks to the Fitzwilliam Museum). Indeed, Cambridge has been central to the promotion of Handel’s oratorios as great drama: the great Handel scholar Winton Dean was converted to the cause during his participation in a staging of Saul while an undergraduate there. More latterly Cambridge has also played a valuable part in the revival of Handel’s operas, has been the foremost academic hothouse for producing the finest English freelance choral singers and soloists, and has played a crucial role in the development in the period instrument movement (The latter-day Academy of Ancient Music is still based in the town).

All these elements of such a rich Handel tradition are clearly to the fore in these fine recordings by Philip Ledger. All were made in King’s College Chapel while he was director of its famous choir, and all were quite innovative in their day. I confess that I was entirely ignorant of these recordings. They have never appeared on CD before, and presumably will be unfamiliar to many. This Virgin Classics reissue, at a ridiculously cheap price, is a revelation, although in many respects the pace of the performances is pedestrian compared to what we are used to from the most recent historically aware performances.

Almost every choral number in all these performances slows down to a grand climax, some of the soprano soloists are – albeit magnificent in their own way – rather approximate with their high notes and overly liberal with their vibrato. Yet the English Chamber Orchestra – who had the luxury of already having recorded Saul with Mackerras a few years earlier for DG (no longer available) – are crisp and alert to Handel’s textures. They may be a little lush, but they never seem too self-indulgent. A comparison of Ledger’s Saul with Mackerras’s magnificent more familiar recording is an enjoyable exercise. I would personally suggest that Ledger’s performance is more resonant thanks to the nave of King’s College Chapel, and on the whole it has better soloists and a neater more appropriate choral sound than Mackerras’s rather overwhelming Leeds Festival Chorus. Mackerras definitely has the advantage when it comes to theatrical atmosphere and intensity. Ledger’s direction of a Handel oratorio may seem measured in comparison, yet it is far from dull and formulaic: each aria and chorus is convincing regarding its poetry and context, and despite recitatives being a touch too ponderous, Ledger captures the spirit of Handel’s genius more closely than some more recent conductors who have tried and failed.

Although this performance - like the others in this boxed set - will not appeal to anyone who firmly hates modern instruments and traditional voices, it is useful to consider that Ledger in many ways was adeptly responding to the gauntlet thrown down by recently emerging period instrument orchestras. There may be some discrepancy between the clipped orchestra and smooth manner of singing, and a few pompous rallentendos, but one senses that the performers were doing their level best to be as stylish as possible.

Thomas Allen is a tour-de-force as Saul. In any first rate performance the antiheroic and self-destructive King has to sound really annoyed in lines such as “What do I hear? Am I then sunk so low to have this upstart boy preferred before me?” Indeed, this scene – with expanding use of chorus, big orchestration, and sudden contrasts between private and public expressions - is always the acid test for a good Saul, and Ledger and Allen pass it with flying colours. Likewise, Saul must gloat at the Feast of the New Moon when he sings “The time at length is come when I shall take my full revenge on Jesse’s son”, and must mix defiance, desperation, and despair in his final scene with the Witch of Endor. In this performance all of these important moments are a paragon of musicality and communication.

Robert Tear is well cast as Jonathan, and his forceful yet direct manner of delivering the text suits arias such as “No, Cruel Father” and “Sin not, O King” very well. The only weak link among the soloists is Paul Esswood’s quivering David: for example, his wobbly progress through “O Lord whose mercies numberless”, gorgeous harp solo notwithstanding, compares weakly with the more assured technique of recent countertenors, and is also inferior to both James Bowman’s wonderful rendition for Mackerras seven years earlier and Esswood’s own contribution to an otherwise mostly dismal Saul by Harnoncourt.

Margaret Marshall and Sally Burgess were both great Handel sopranos of their generation, and their style has not dated too badly. It is good to hear the Witch of Endor sung by Martyn Hill because usually this small yet pivotal role is assigned to lesser tenors. Yet the vocal highpoint of this surprisingly stunning performance is a curious little indication towards the future: a very young Charles Daniels – presumably still a choral scholar at Cambridge when this was made – produces a heartbreaking “O let in not in Gath be heard” during the Elegy. Daneils, then as now, displays a beautiful high tenor voice and an aptitude for pathos: this brief yet breathtaking moment alone is fully worth the price of these five discs.

The Choir of King’s College comes across most persuasively in an equally enjoyable recording of Alexander’s Feast. Although they are a little flabbier than they sound these days under Stephen Cleobury, the balance is good and the boy trebles remarkably secure and flexible. Again, a few moments could have benefited from a more relentless approach to pacing: for example, the cadence before the fugue “But love was crowned and music won the prize” in ”The many rend the skies”, and the accompanied recitative “Now strike the golden lyre again” ought to be more intense (although the subsequent chorus is terrific). However, Ledger’s choice of tempos – which is a distinct separate issue from pacing – is satisfying enough. Robert Tear, often personifying the minstrel Timotheus who ruthlessly exploits the emotions of Alexander the Great during a banquet, is also good here. Yet, again, the star is Thomas Allen, whose “Revenge, Timotheus cries” is everything a lover of Alexander’s Feast can ask for. On the evidence of these reissues, Allen is such an intelligent Handel singer that it is perhaps surprising he is not better known in this repertoire.

The last recording in this fabulous box is The Choice of Hercules: the only recording here that Ledger made with The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. It is also the oldest recording of the three, which is surprising because so much of it sounds very fresh. The choir does not quite have the clarity or refinement it demonstrates in Alexander’s Feast and Saul, but the orchestra is sympathetic to some of Handel’s most congenial scoring: there are sweet flutes in the opening introduction (radiantly sung by Heather Harper as Pleasure) and lively horns in “There the brisk sparkling nectar drain”. Until recently there was no readily available recording of this lovely work which, appropriately for this reissue, Handel composed to accompany a revival of Alexander’s Feast in 1751. Ledger’s version has Heather Harper and James Bowman on fine form, but in the only tenor aria “Enjoy the sweet Elysian grove” Robert Tear barks it as an order rather than cajoles seductively in the way the poetry suggests. Robert King’s recent version on period instruments is perhaps more even and reliable but is also less charismatic. For the sublime “Yet can I hear the dulcet lay” there is nothing to choose between King’s Robin Blaze and Ledger’s James Bowman. They are both sublime.

In short, this boxed set is truly an essential bargain. It contains some incisive top quality Handel interpretations, and even if they sound a little dated now one can appreciate that in many ways they remain refreshing and adequately stylish in their own manner. Modern listeners, if they have the patience and goodwill to tolerate its very few stylistic foibles and seemingly old-fashioned sounds, will find rich nourishment in these performances.

© David Vickers - January 2003

Return to the G. F. Handel Home Page