HANDEL: Saul (complete oratorio) – Yorck Felix Speer (Saul)/ Tim Mead (David)/ Maximilian Schmitt/ Ditte Andersen (Michal)/ Anna Prohaska/ Eric Stoklossa/ Clemens Heidrich/ Dresden Chamber Choir and Baroque Orch./ Hans-Christoph Rademann – Carus

by | May 23, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

HANDEL: Saul (complete oratorio) – Yorck Felix Speer (Saul)/ Tim Mead (David)/ Maximilian Schmitt (Jonathan)/ Ditte Andersen (Michal)/ Anna Prohaska (Merab)/ Eric Stoklossa (Priest, Witch)/ Clemens Heidrich (Ghost)/ Dresden Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra/ Hans-Christoph Rademann – Carus multichannel SACD 83.243 (3 discs), 165:07 **** [Distr. by Albany]:

This was Handel’s first connection with the eminent and somewhat politically-dogged librettist Charles Jennens, of Messiah fame. Jennens opposed the Hanoverian monarchy, but was a Protestant, and hence one of the “non-jurors.” Since he was forbidden to take public office (or even get awarded a degree from Oxford), he turned to his artistic side instead, often cloaking (as was often the case in those times) his political feelings under the guise of more sophisticated and “accepted” stories.

Saul was certainly one of these, and had been set several times before Handel got to it. Handel was certainly to eclipse all others; indeed, this production elicited comment after comment from Jennens, who was continually mentioning the number of exotic instruments and sounds that the composer was writing into the score. Perhaps Handel felt he needed to use these to make a splash. Italian opera was on the wane in the 1730s, and the season of 1738 found him turning his attention more and more toward the newly-formed oratorio concept. Without the stage action, he may have felt the need for a little more musical spice. Or it could be that he was simply trying to give the Londoners something to talk about after the season opener in January of 1739.

And this was new stuff. Aside from the usual orchestra of strings, oboes, bassoons, theorbo, and harpsichord, Handel adds flutes, trumpets, trombones, harp, organ, carillon, and kettle drums. It was thought that the composer was trying to emulate the ancient instruments of old in a modern way, and if that is the case then he succeeds brilliantly. The choral writing, as usual, is fresh and vigorous, with the chorus serving as a very active interjectory all through the piece. The individual parts, especially the principals David, Saul, Jonathan, and Michal are very sharply drawn and given colorful music. Though this is a rather German production, I found little to balk at, the four prime soloists being wonderful, and the orchestra playing as well as any period band I have heard, though the strings are (not surprisingly) a tad nasal.

I have not heard the Gardiner, but this one compares favorably to Jacobs (Harmonia mundi) and my old favorite, the very much cut Mogens Woldike on Vanguard. But the surround sound on this current issue beats most everything, and since all the performances are very close, this is an easy recommendation.

— Steven Ritter

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