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“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.” BBC Music Magazine, November 2007 ***
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oratorio in 3 acts (sung in English)
The most dramatic of oratorios. Although oratorios are not intended to be staged, Handel’s Saul is something of an exception - for one thing, it contains extremely precise stage directions which were printed in the wordbooks distributed at performances. Hence audiences at the first English oratorios could construct a form of mental theatre, aided by Handel’s dazzling musical depiction of the action: as we listen, we can see Goliath’s gigantic strides, the course of the Jordan, or Saul throwing his javelin.
“Saul, Handel's first great oratorio, has over the last 15 years or so become one of his most popular on disc, a consequence no doubt of its textural and musical variety, dramatic urgency and sheer entertainment value. There is something for everyone here: rollicking choral celebrations of Israelite victories at the start, balanced at the end by outpourings of national grief, with the stern moral pronouncement of 'Envy, eldest born of hell!' in between; superb arias for a vivid cast of characters, one of whom is a compelling tragic hero of Shakespearian stature; and a good helping of instrumental interest, with Handel ingeniously using orchestral movements to signal the passing of time.
René Jacobs's recording followed only a little over a year after Paul McCreesh's well-regarded, high-production-value account for DG and readers familiar with both conductors' styles will know what kinds of contrast to expect. Jacobs's understanding of the dramatic workings of Baroque opera and oratorio is second to none and, as usual, his performance is outstandingly successful in linking Handel's sequences of numbers into a coherent whole, with recitatives flowing in and out of arias, and choruses arriving and departing with real purpose. The performance also gains theatrical presence by its punchy sound: the orchestra is well represented in the balance – undoubtedly a good thing in view of Concerto Köln's vibrant playing – while the RIAS Chamber Choir are encouraged to let dramatic concerns take precedence over the more smoothly produced 'English anthem' Handel Vocal 521 sound of McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort. Indeed, there is a distinctly continental whiff to Jacobs's choruses which he heightens (some might say distractingly) through the use of 'French'-style final-note trills.
Jacobs's customary attention to detail in recitatives, backed up by some imaginative instrumentation, also draws vital responses from his soloists; certainly Gidon Saks's manly Saul sounds more dangerously volatile in these than he does in his arias, though this may be more Handel's fault than his. The other singers strike a better balance and, while not as starry a line-up as McCreesh's (where the presence of Andreas Scholl as David will be recommendation enough for many), are nevertheless well chosen to achieve a 'company' result. Sopranos Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell are effectively contrasted as Saul's daughters, while Jeremy Ovenden cuts a humane but incisively heroic figure as Jonathan.
Lawrence Zazzo's David cannot match the sheer vocal allure of Scholl but comes across as more rounded figure – this, after all, is a character who has to be both a sensitive musician and a warrior-leader.
If it is dramatic involvement you want from Saul, then Jacobs's is the one to have, though it certainly should not turn you against McCreesh's classy product. If money is no object (and note that Jacobs gets his performance onto two discs to everyone else's three), you could do worse than treat yourself to more than one.” Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010
“Emma Bell is turning out to be a fine Handel singer of considerable power… 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... 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', gallant in character, are superbly done.” BBC Music Magazine, October 2005
“a must for all Handelians..by a whisker, surely the Saul to have on your shelves” International Record Review
BBC Music Magazine
Disc of the month - October 2005
Renowned for their Handel interpretations, Harry Christophers and his award winning choir, The Sixteen, add to their glittering catalogue of Handel discs with this new recording of Saul.
In his biblical oratorio, Saul, Handel wrote an epic work of great and noble drama and of thrilling musical inventiveness. Saul represents Handel’s first proper foray into oratorio and it is a masterpiece full of great and magical moments. It is bursting with exceptional music, extraordinary orchestration (replete with trombones, deepsounding drum and perky carillon), extended choruses both profound and ebullient, symphonies, concerto movements for organ, recitatives which explore the varying moods of the characters, and the most stunning arias.
In Saul Handel gifted soloists with roles of vivid characterisation and the artists on this disc are some of the finest Handelian interpreters of today including Christopher Purves - a baritone whose talent for dramatic realisation is matched by superb musical craftsmanship - and Sarah Connolly - whose intensely radiant performance of David on this CD confirms her status as one of our most sought-after Handel performers.
Both Christopher and Sarah sang with The Sixteen at the start of their careers, and Sarah released her first solo album Heroes and Heroines on CORO, and so it is with great pride that we welcome them back for this recording. Robert Murray, Elizabeth Atherton and Joélle Harvey along with Sixteen regulars, Mark Dobell, Jeremy Budd and Stuart Young, complete the stellar line-up of soloists on this new recording.
“[Christophers's] ever-sure handling of choruses, sensitivity to the needs of solo singers and affinity for the orchestral grandeur or Handel's most elaborate score mark him out as an honest, natural Handelian conductor...Purves charms, broods, fumes implacably, plots villainously and confronts his doom vividly in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedian...The Sixteen's first-class account of Saul is magnificent in every way that matters most.” Gramophone Magazine, October 2012
“With his acting chops and weighty bass-baritone, Purves in full cry is a splendid and fearful spectacle. But balm is at hand from Sarah Connolly’s David...She’s at her peak singing O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless in Act I, channelling her eloquence through the words rather than any elaborately beautified tone...Buy with confidence.” The Times, 7th September 2012 ****
“Christopher Purves gives vent to Saul’s paranoia with trenchant diction and fulminating delivery of Handel’s angry coloratura. Sarah Connolly’s David is the other star, unusually but apparently authentically cast in a role once thought to have been written for a countertenor.” Sunday Times, 16th September 2012
“Christophers is, on the whole, a lively and mainstream Handelian...The set is worth having for Connolly's singing of [David's] aria alone...Purves's volatile Saul strikes me, too, as a prime asset...none of his colleagues in the older sets suggests the gradual slide into paranoia and derangement as Purves does here. His text is immaculate, his coloratura clean and precise, never blustery.” International Record Review, October 2012
“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...Connolly's 'O Lord, whose mercies' proves a spellbinding vindication of casting a sophisticated velvety mezzo” BBC Music Magazine, Christmas 2012 ****
“[Connolly's and Purves's] performances could not be bettered. Indeed, the whole cast is excellent, with Robert Murray (Jonathan) and Joélle Harvey (Michal) also on sparkling form, as are the chorus and orchestra. Christophers paces the drama perfectly, and draws out every emotional nuance throughout; he deserves the highest praise for this outstanding achievement.” Early Music Today
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Saul is among Handel’s most dramatic oratorios. As in almost no other Handel oratorio, the exciting drama of this work shows how close it was to the opera of that time. Through the use of harp and glockenspiel in the orchestra he impressively portrays the history of Saul and David with the sounds of ancient Israel.
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'...it is not likely to be surpassed on disc for a long time' The Penguin Guide to Opera on Compact Disc
“These CDs of Handel's exotically-scored study in implacable jealousy capture a live performance energised by Gardiner's high precision dramatic acuity. The casting is mostly distinguished, though Derek Lee Ragin's David sounds semi-engaged.” BBC Music Magazine, July 2007 ****
“With incisive, disciplined choral singing, the result is overwhelming.” BBC Music Magazine, May 2008
“The special strengths of Paul McCreesh's performance lie in the drama and the urgency he brings to the work, the keen sense of character he imparts to the music, the vigorous pacing that carries the action forward with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. But Saul is a tragic work, and there's sometimes a want of the necessary gravitas. Nevertheless, this is a gripping and very inspiriting performance. The precision and flexibility of the Gabrieli Consort is a constant delight; the voices are fresh and bright, the words well articulated. The Gabrieli Players, too, produce a fine and distinctive period orchestral timbre. Andreas Scholl makes an ideal David, with sweetness and unusual depth of tone, exceptional precision of rhythm and perfectly clear words: if you try 'O Lord, whose mercies' you will buy this set. Enjoyable, too, is Nancy Argenta's natural, delicately phrased singing of Micah's music, and Susan Gritton's telling portrayal of Saul's elder daughter, Merab. Saul himself, sometimes fiery, nearly always agonised, is effectively drawn by Neal Davies; and Mark Padmore's warm and gently graceful tenor is ideal for Jonathan's music.
There's no shortage of good recordings of this work. Gardiner's weighty version holds the field, but this version presents a serious challenge; the lightness and clarity, the livelier drama and the solo singing of Scholl in particular tell in favour of McCreesh.” Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010
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Lynne Dawson, Donna Brown, Derek Lee Ragin, John Mark Ainsley, Neil Mackie, Alastair Miles, Philip Salmon, Philip Slane, Richard Savage, Simon Oberst, Holton
English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner