Handel’s Saul was the talk of the 1739 London season, thanks to its gripping storyline, ably marshalled by Charles Jennens of Messiah renown, politically resonant subtexts, and a score enriched with silvery carillon, harp, trombones and military kettledrums – specially imported from the Tower of London.
Harry Christophers has already recorded several of the oratorios and here he adds one of the grandest of all to the collection. This recording was forged in a staging at Buxton and concert performances in London and Paris. Perhaps the latter win out in Christophers’s spruce conducting which champions transparency and musical precision, but doesn’t always match the dramatic acuity of Gardiner’s live account from the 1989 Göttingen Handel Festival, or the psychological insights of René Jacobs’s much more recent set.
The Baroque pomp and circumstance of the ceremonial music is crisply judged, and, whether lamenting or rejoicing, the choruses are always beautifully contoured, as is the incisive playing of The Sixteen’s house band. Christopher Purves and Sarah Connolly all but steal the show: Purves’s splenetic Saul is a satisfyingly multi-layered creation, and, as the young David, Connolly’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies’ proves a spellbinding vindication of casting a sophisticated velvety mezzo in a role where a certain vocal innocence might have recommended itself. Among current choir members stepping up to the soloistic plate, Stuart Young’s Ghost of Samuel impresses for its measured nobility.