When Handel performed Saul for the first time, in London in 1739, it was his most generously scored oratorio to date. The orchestration includes pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and trumpets as well as a harp, two organs, theorbo, three trombones, a carillon and extra large kettledrums which were rare enough to necessitate borrowing a pair from the Tower of London. There is action aplenty in the Old Testament story of Saul, and both Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, explored its wide emotional range to create one of the greatest of all English language music dramas.
The psychological insight that Handel had earlier demonstrated in his Italian operas is certainly among the strengths here and is especially rewarding in the characterisation of Saul, the anti-hero. Gidon Saks whose voice has a strikingly distinctive timbre offers a powerfully projected account of the role, but he is perhaps less effective than Alistair Miles in John Eliot Gardiner’s version (now reissued as part of a nine-CD set of Handel oratorios and anthems on Philips 475 6897) in realising the contrasting colours which reflect the changing moods of this complex figure. On the other hand I prefer Lawrence Zazzo’s characterful David either to the hard edged sound of Derek Lee Ragin (Gardiner) or to the expressively more predictable though beautiful sounding Andreas Scholl in Paul McCreesh’s recent recording. The merits of Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell in the new version against those of Lynne Dawson and Donna Brown (Gardiner) on the one hand, and Susan Gritton and Nancy Argenta (McCreesh) on the other are more evenly balanced. Saul’s two daughters, Merab and Michal were given effectively contrasting characters by Jennens and the casting in each of the three recordings has taken this into account. Emma Bell is turning out to be a fine Handel singer of considerable power (her Handel arias CD is reviewed p74), and her Merab – sometimes haughty, sometimes indignant – affords effective contrast with the fresh and sensuous contours of Rosemary Joshua’s Michal. The dramatically blander role of Jonathan is very well sung by Jeremy Ovenden though his rivals, John Mark Ainsley (Gardiner) and Mark Padmore (McCreesh) are comparably impressive.
Though there are many dramatic moments in McCreesh’s Saul, the performance moves forward more slowly and is altogether less highly charged than René Jacobs’s colourful and theatrically exciting version. The importance of the chorus in Handel’s oratorios can hardly be overstated and under Jacobs’s direction the RIAS-Kammerchor comes over very well indeed. The great ‘Envy’ chorus at the beginning of Act II and the concluding ‘Gird on thy sword’, galant in character, are superbly done. The sustained excellence of Concerto Köln in a score which is strikingly opulent by the standards of the day is further reason to place this dramatically satisfying performance at the head of the league table. Add to these many virtues one of the finest recorded sounds that I can recall having heard for some while and the result is an outstanding issue. Nicholas Anderson