Classical CD Reviews

HANDEL: Saul (complete oratorio) – Soloists/ The Sixteen / Harry Christophers – Coro (3 CDs)

An excellent recording—and almost a great one—of Handel’s masterwork.

Published on December 29, 2012

HANDEL: Saul (complete oratorio) – Soloists/ The Sixteen / Harry Christophers – Coro (3 CDs)

HANDEL: Saul, HWV 53 (complete oratorio) – Christopher Purves, bass (Saul)/ Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano (David)/ Robert Murray, tenor (Jonathan)/ Elizabeth Atherton, soprano (Merab) / Joélle Harvey, soprano (Michal)/ Mark Dobell, tenor (High Priest)/ Jeremy Budd, tenor (Witch of Endor)/ Stuart Young, bass (Ghost of Samuel)/ The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro COR16103 (3 discs), 73:36; 48:19; 40:44 [Distr. by Allegro] ****1/2: 

Saul was the fourth of Handel’s English oratorios, written in 1738, the year after the composer apparently suffered a debilitating stroke from which he recovered with remarkable speed. And with no diminution of his powers, as witness Saul, one his three or four greatest oratorios. According to Handel scholar Ruth Smith, it was the longest English theater piece written up to that time and included the largest performing forces of any theater piece, in English or Italian, presented in England up to that time. The orchestra includes the usual strings and woodwinds (pairs of flutes, oboes, and bassoons), but in place of horns Handel called for three trombones, along with two trumpets and military drums; they give the celebratory music a grand martial air and the funeral music toward the end, a special gravity. Besides this, Handel included a harp, which David uses to accompany his songs in Acts I and III, and a carillon to add a festive note to the victory music that greets Saul and David on their return from battle with the Philistines.

Ironically, of course, this victory music also sets in motion the tragic business of the oratorio as the chorus praises David above Saul:

Saul, who hast thy thousands slain,
Welcome to thy friends again!
David his ten thousands slew,
Ten thousand praises are his due!

Instantly, Saul is wracked with envy of David; Saul’s daughter Michal calls it “his old disease.” Once before Saul had fallen into a melancholy state, which David managed to exorcise with his celebrated singing and playing. Michal hopes that this time David can do the same, but even one of Handel’s tenderest arias and a “symphony” for the solo harp fail to do the trick: in a rage Saul throws his spear at David. David flees, and thus begins the king’s descent into the treachery and impiety that lead to his death.

The kind of psychological insight for which Handel is praised above all other Baroque composers gives Saul its special tragic force. Saul’s wrath and then despair; David’s sorrow yet continued faith in God’s grace; Jonathan’s love and solicitude for David; and the growing respect for David felt by Saul’s daughter Merab, who at first scorns the young shepherd, are all portrayed in music that perfectly suits the emotions involved. But Handel was also lucky in his choice of librettists: Charles Jennens—with whom Handel would collaborate on Israel in Egypt, Messiah, and Belshazzar—provides noble sentiments and pointed drama that gave Handel the impetus to produce some of his greatest music. Along with the Act I victory celebration that goes disastrously wrong, Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor and David’s lament over the death of Jonathan and Saul are among the most remarkable set pieces in dramatic choral music.

In this recording with the Sixteen under its leader Harry Christophers, David is sung by mezzo Sarah Connolly, a controversial choice that’s defended by Ruth Smith in her booklet notes. Most performances and recordings cast David as a countertenor, but Smith argues that the elegy sung by David “is written in the soprano clef and is marked to be sung by ‘Sgra Marches.’, that is, the mezzo Maria Antonia Marchesini (also know as ‘La Lucchesina’), who was something of a trouser role specialist.” Further, since Handel himself subsequently cast the role not only for countertenor and mezzo but also for tenor and even bass, Smith feels that the use of a mezzo in the role is more than justified. Maybe so.

Another argument Smith makes seems to me less convincing, which is that Bible commentators of Handel’s day were queasy about the friendship between David and Jonathan, whose love for David is described as “great, passing the love of women.” In his libretto, Charles Jennens treats this subject gingerly according to Smith, shifting the emphasis from David’s great charm to his virtue as the attribute that wins hearts to him, including Jonathan’s. Casting David as a mezzo would further deflect possible negative reactions to the relationship on the part of audiences. Again, maybe so, but I can’t really see that Handel’s audiences, who were as familiar with the Bible story as most Americans are with the story of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler, would have objected on any grounds to the dramatic portrayal of this iconic friendship.

As you might guess, I prefer the more traditional use of a countertenor in the role. Still, Sarah Connolly’s singing and acting are beautiful and impressive throughout. She captures every nuance of emotion in the role, as does Christopher Purves as Saul, majestic in both his anger and his despair. Connolly and Purves, who now have illustrious solo careers, are alums of the Sixteen, and Christophers is rightly proud of their association with his group. The other roles are mostly well served, especially by Robert Murray as Jonathan and Joélle Harvey as Michal. It’s sometimes difficult on a recording to distinguish Michal from Merab since both roles are sung by sopranos; however, on this recording it’s easy to tell sweet-toned Joélle Harvey from the wobbly soprano of Elizabeth Atherton. Her grating vibrato is the only fly in the ointment for me. Chorus and orchestra give their all in a majestic performance, and the engineering is really superb. The performance was recorded in a London church, imparting just the right amount of ambiance, yet impact and presence are thrilling.

If you insist on a countertenor in the role of David, then René Jacobs’ version on Harmonia mundi, with Lawrence Zazzo as a very impressive David, is for you. There’s really little to choose between Jacobs’ Saul (Gidon Saks) and Christopher Purves (both powerful), but Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell outclass the Michal and Merab on the current recording. What’s more, Jacobs’ Saul is offered at about half the price of Christophers’, and with Messiah thrown in for good measure! However, the sound on the Jacobs recording lacks the immediacy and punch the Coro engineers provide. So, then, it’s a toss-up which recording to choose; I’m just glad to own both since they have such complementary strengths.

—Lee Passarella

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