Handel: Saul

LABELS: Hanssler
PERFORMER: Kirsten Blaise, Elizabeth Keusch (soprano), Daniel Taylor (countertenor), Norman Shankle (tenor), Markus Eiche (bass); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
The psychological insight that Handel demonstrated in his Italian operas is just as evident in many of his oratorios. Indeed, the characterisation by Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, of the Old Testament anti-hero Saul resulted in what is without doubt one of the finest of all English-language music dramas. First performed


in London in 1739, it is generously scored for 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 borrowed from the Tower of London.

Helmuth Rilling’s recording enters an arena that is already well populated with imposing competitors, ranging from John Eliot Gardiner to Paul McCreesh


and René Jacobs. Unlike these, though, Rilling performs with modern instruments, tuned to today’s concert pitch; and his choir, in excess of 40 voices, is larger than in some of the rival versions. The soloists, by-and-large, are effective though my enthusiasm for Markus Eiche’s resonant Saul is tempered by his sometimes uneasy pronunciation of English. Daniel Taylor’s David, though, compares favourably with Derek Lee Ragin (Gardiner) and Lawrence Zazzo (Jacobs) – his performance of ‘O Lord, whose Mercies numberless’ is affecting. Saul’s daughters, Michal and Merab, are pleasingly sung by Kirsten Blaise and Elizabeth Keusch, though one can’t help feeling that more could have been made of their contrasting personalities. Norman Shankle is adequate in the dramatically blander role of Jonathan, but he is no match for Mark Padmore (McCreesh). Notwithstanding a few weaknesses, Rilling convincingly sustains the drama with mainly well-judged tempos, an appropriate sense of pacing, and strong support from chorus and instrumentalists. Magda Marx-Weber’s booklet essay, on the other hand, has been carelessly translated. Nicholas Anderson