Handel: Saul

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COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm
WORKS: Saul
PERFORMER: Gregory Reinhart (bass), Matthias Koch (alto), John Elwes (tenor)Cologne Chamber Choir, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 332 0801-2
In the summer of 1738, with his upcoming opera season cancelled due to lack of interest, the beleaguered Handel turned to an oratorio libretto that had lain in his drawer for three years. The music came fitfully, requiring frequent and extensive revision before its first performance on 16 January 1739. It seems that Handel’s heart still lay in opera, even though with Saul he produced a work of abundant variety and epic grandeur. Helped by an incisive libretto from Charles Jennens (later librettist for Messiah and Belshazzar), Handel’s score was richly orchestrated and dramatically astute. If the first two acts maintain a breathless pace, the third has the oratorio’s two great set-pieces: Saul’s eerie, chilling confrontation with the ghost of Samuel and the closing Elegy, where the music attains a tragic nobility.

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The classic recording of Saul is John Eliot Gardiner’s live 1989 performance, with a first-rate team of soloists – Lynne Dawson, Donna Brown, Derek Lee Ragin, John Mark Ainsley, Alastair Miles – and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, all in magisterial form. This new recording, also live, is no match. Peter Neumann’s soloists often sound callow and stretched, lacking the technical finesse and dramatic nous of Gardiner’s team. John Elwes’s forceful Jonathan and Vasilika JezovsŠek’s Michal are engaging exceptions, but Gregory Reinhart is a wooden Saul and Matthias Koch a largely ineffectual David (with an unfortunate ‘hooty’ tone in certain registers). Gardiner’s set also has the sharper choruses, sharper orchestral playing and sharper sound quality. Graham Lock