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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Saul (HWV 53)

Elizabeth Atherton (Merab), Joélle Harvey (Michal), soprano; Sarah Connolly (David), mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Budd (Witch of Endor), Mark Dobell (High Priest), Robert Murray (Jonathan), Tom Raskin (Amalekite), tenor; Eamonn Dougan (Abner), baritone; Ben Davies (Doeg), Christopher Purves (Saul), Stuart Young (Ghost of Samuel), bass
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: Jan 2012, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Coro - COR16103 (3 CDs) (© 2012) (2.42'40")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

The Sixteen have a wide repertoire which goes from the early renaissance to the present time. Although purely vocal music is the core of their activities, they make regularly forays into the repertoire for choir and orchestra. To that end they have their own instrumental ensemble which allows their founder and conductor, Harry Christophers, to perform and record some of Handel's oratorios. The discography includes popular masterpieces in which the choir plays a central role: Messiah and Israel in Egypt. Christophers also recorded other vocal compositions in which vocal soloists take a more important role, such as Samson and Saul. The latter is the most recent recording which follows a series of public performances which met with great enthusiasm if we have to believe the information in the booklet.

Saul was composed in 1738 and was first performed in January 1739 to great success. It was the first time Handel set a libretto written by Charles Jennens who was also to compile the texts for the two 'choral' oratorios I just mentioned. As Handel scholar Ruth Smith states in her liner-notes the libretto had all kinds of political connotations which were connected to the situation around the dynasty.

Although the story of Saul and David as told in the Bible (1 and 2 Samuel) is the basis of the libretto Jennens took considerable freedom in order to increase the drama. That is also due to the fact that few arias have a da capo and are mostly rather short. As a result this work has considerable pace which further increases its dramatic character. There are no less than 11 characters which is unusually large, although some of them have a very small role to play. Saul is depicted as a rude and jealous monarch who goes a long way to destroy everyone he considers a threat to his position, and even tries to kill his own son Jonathan if he comes to the defense of David. Christopher Purves delivers an excellent interpretation of this role. His strong voice is perfectly suited to express Saul's outbursts of rage, but he is equally credible in the last act where he shows his vulnerability and insecurity in the face of defeat against the Philistine armies.

Interesting are the characters of his two daughters, Merab and Michal. The former is arrogant and can't understand that her brother Jonathan befriends "a boy (...) of poor plebeian parents born". Michal, on the other hand, falls in love with David, and is delighted when Saul makes her marry him. In this performance the difference between the two daughters is well realised by Elizabeth Atherton and Joélle Harvey. During the oratorio Merab changes her attitude when she recognizes her father's injustice. Ms Atherton makes that change of heart fully plausible. The portrayal of David is differentiated, and that is admirably realised by Sarah Connolly. His anger (Impious wretch) and his deep sorrow about the death of Saul and Jonathan come off equally well.

The choir has an important role in many of Handel's oratorios, and Saul is no exception. It opens the work in the role of the 'Chorus of Israelites' which sings the praises of David who has just beaten and killed Goliath. The Sixteen are too restrained here; the choruses in scene 1 could have been more extraverted. In the closing part of Saul it joins David in the mourning about the death of Saul and Jonathan.

The orchestra is also used to dramatic effect. It includes unusual instruments such as trombones - which had become obsolete in England since the beginning of the 18th century - and large military drums. Handel also had a kind of carillon built for the performance of Saul - or, that is what scholars think is most likely the instrument he used. In some performances a celesta is used which is the least plausible option as that instrument dates from the 19th century. Here a carillon is used. Moreover, the harp plays in several passages as this was the instrument David played when Saul is afflicted by evil spirits.

The oratorio is arranged as a series of tableaux which mark several stages in the relationship between Saul and David. These are divided by instrumental movements. Although the contributions from the various soloists are mostly satisfying from a dramatic point of view, the performance as a whole is probably not as dramatic as one would hope for. That is not easy to achieve in a studio performance, but certainly not impossible. The performance lacks real pace and forward drive; a faster succession of the recitatives and arias could have helped.

However, the main problem of this recording is the style of singing by the soloists and the choir. It seems that many conductors don't care very much about the way music of the past has to be sung according to what we know from historical sources. Even though there are differences of opinion on the use of vibrato in the baroque era and various sources seem to contradict each other, nobody can make me believe that the incessant and wide vibrato of Elizabeth Atherton is in accordance with 18th-century practice. It is the most widely disseminated virus in modern performances of vocal music, especially in oratorios and operas. Most other soloists have been affected by this virus as well. Joélle Harvey's vibrato is narrower than Ms Atherton's, but just as ugly and unstylish. Robert Murray's singing suffers from the same problem, and Sarah Connolly is not free from it either. It is probably no surprise that Mark Dobell is the most convincing singer as he seems to be the only real early music specialist.

The singing of the choir lacks sometimes a little bite, and I wonder whether the size of the choir (6/4/4/4) is too small. The transparency is less than ideal, again due to a pretty extensive vibrato, and the text isn't always easy to understand. The sound of the orchestra is a bit thin and the playing could have had more dramatic flair.

All in all, this recording has nice things to offer, especially the singing of Christopher Purves and Sarah Connolly. It is just disappointing that it is inconsistent from a stylistic point of view. Unfortunately, that is a not uncommon phenomenon these days.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen

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