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Handel's Saul: "Thou darling of my soul"

available at Amazon
Handel, Saul, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner

(remastered August 14, 2007)
Philips 475 8256
With Saul, David, and Jonathan on my mind recently, it seems a good time to revisit this recently remastered recording of a classic musical setting of the Biblical story, Handel's oratorio Saul. The title is a good indication of the different focus of Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), on the character of Saul, instead of the friendship of David and Jonathan (as in Charpentier's intermèdes). Instead of beginning with the Witch of Endor scenes, as Charpentier did, Handel and Jennens leave the summoning of the Ghost of Samuel to the third act, where it leads directly to Saul's destruction. Jennens drew on Abraham Cowley's Davideis, an epic poem left incomplete, to add the character of Merab, Jonathan's jealous sister, and some of the conceits of the famous Envy Chorus at the opening of Act II.

Tenor John Mark Ainsley is a pleasing Jonathan, appropriately lyric for a teenager, while countertenor Derek Lee Ragin is a little strident as David. Bass Alastair Miles is a rumbling, ranting Saul. Soprano Donna Brown's pretty voice is both venomous and later sweet as Jonathan's sister Merab, who initially hates David and later admires him. Ruth Holton has an angelic, white-toned turn on "An infant raised" that one wishes might have been applied instead to the role of Michal, in which Lynne Dawson was a little acidic and under-inflated. The English pronunciation is all native in this classic performance, a distinct advantage, and the diction clear as a bell.

It is a tribute to John Eliot Gardiner's pioneering spirit in historically informed performance that this early recording still sounds so good. The organ and harpsichord are both beautifully played and captured, as are the strange carillon that is meant to signal Saul's mad jealousy (as in the symphony at the end of Act I, scene 2). The three trombones are round-toned and accurate, too. The high quality is all the remarkable for this combination of several live performances, at the 1989 Göttingen Handel Festival. Like most performances of Saul, Gardiner mostly follows the 1739 version of the score, from the work's premiere. This includes having the part of David, which Handel originally composed for the mezzo-soprano Marchesini, sung an octave down by a tenor. The Witch of Endor, sung by a character tenor, could be sung in a much more burlesque way than it was here by Philip Salmon.

The Gardiner set cannot compete on merit alone with the two most recent recordings of Saul, from the Gabrieli Consort and Paul McCreesh, with Andreas Scholl's David (one of Jens's Best Recordings of 2004) and the even more pleasing version from Concerto Köln/RIAS Kammerchor and René Jacobs (which made the Best Recordings of 2005). The Jacobs is lean and mean, a vigorous reading that helps point out just how expansive Gardiner's reading. That same broadness that makes Gardiner a little dull in the first two acts is luxuriant in the final scene, an extended lamentation from the Dead March through Jennens' poetic heightening of the Biblical text of David's grief.

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