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S & H Concert Review

Handel, ‘Saul’ Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh, Barbican Hall, Sunday October 13th 2002 (ME)

 

‘Saul’ is one of Handel’s greatest and most – loved works, containing some of his most moving and uplifting music and subtle characterization. Since ‘Seen and Heard’ were not provided with a Press ticket for the performance (the Scholl effect. Ed), one assumes that there won’t be any desperate anxiety to read what we have to say, but it’s interesting that the last concert for which it was not possible to give me a Press ticket was also by this group, at the Lincoln Centre in New York in August – on that occasion, I was almost glad that I had had to get my own seat, since it removed from me the obligation to review a performance of ‘Esther’ of such stultifying tedium that I had great difficulty in staying awake. That this ‘Saul’ was not at that level of dreariness was mainly due to the presence of Andreas Scholl as David. As for much of the rest, I could not possibly sum it up better than an acquaintance who accosted me at the interval; ‘What do I think of it? Put a rocket up the conductor’s backside, and shoot the tenor, that’s what.’

Of course, if you put five Early Music devotees in a room and throw a few bits of Handel at them, they will happily scrap for hours on end about tempi, tempi and…er…tempi. Some love ‘em slow, some love ‘em fast, and this performance must have been just Heaven for those who like the former; indeed, one musical friend said afterwards ‘I do like the relaxed pace.’ Well, I don’t, and this pace was so relaxed as to stray into the comatose. The opening Symphony did not lack drive, and harboured some hopes during parts of it, but it kept slipping back into the turgid. McCreesh directed playing of reasonable accuracy but with some waywardness of ensemble at times, and the overall level of the performance was not always raised by the chorus, who sometimes took me back to the sort of well-meaning but raggedy singing in which I used to participate as a student.

The solo parts were taken with varying degrees of vocal beauty, although it must be said that all of them gave full weight to the dramatic import of their roles. Susan Gritton brought out all Merab’s haughtiness in her demeanour and her singing was fluent and expressive, although it has to be said that hers is not really a Handel voice, and some of her faster passages were rather smudged. Nancy Argenta’s certainly is a Handel voice, and she gave a touchingly affecting portrayal of Micah, despite some understandable tentativeness – she was replacing Deborah York at short notice. Saul himself was sung by Neal Davies who blustered convincingly as the fallible king, producing some elegant singing in his short arias, and the small but significant part of Samuel was impressively taken by Jonathan Arnold.

The part of the faithful Jonathan was sung by Mark Padmore, the tenor second only to Ian Bostridge in ubiquity; an aside, but there was an interview with Mr. Padmore in last week’s ‘Telegraph’ which I found extraordinary for its grandiose title ‘The Great Communicator’ and for the way in which this very well booked and recorded tenor appears to think that he is somehow under – rated! Padmore has a good solid tenor voice, and he declaims the dramatic parts with some fervour, but his tone is, to say the least, unbeautiful, he seems entirely lacking in the requisite tenderness, and he never moves you as you should be moved in, say, ‘But sooner Jordan’s Stream,’ nor does he excite you with any brilliant passagework at such moments as ‘From Virtue let my Friendship rise’ and ‘Darling of my Soul.’ Maybe he was having an off night.

And so to the reason why most of the audience were there – Andreas Scholl’s David. I have said before that this is one of the great voices of our time, and this performance simply confirmed yet again his stature as the King of Countertenors (yes, yes, I know David Daniels is wonderful, too, so please don’t bother to bombard me with messages about him) The minute he began ‘O King, your Favours with Delight’ it was as though we were in a different world: this was singing of quite another order from the everyday, in which the phrasing is so perfect that it is impossible to imagine it being done otherwise, the tone so liquid and burnished and redolent of so much immersion in the spirit of the music that you cannot help but become rapt in contemplation of hearing such utter perfection. Aria after aria, recitative one after the other, was presented with the most blazing commitment, and the audience’s absorption in his characterization was at a rare level of intensity.

It was a great pity that McCreesh had decided upon such a slow speed for ‘Such haughty Beauties,’ since this kind of showpiece aria reveal Scholl at his best, but one could hardly help imagining what he could have done with it if it had been taken at the sort of speed at which Derek Lee Ragin sings it on the classic recording, or indeed as Scholl himself performs it under Harnoncourt; in the latter recording, he is enabled to produce some really dazzling passagework, but McCreesh’s tempo obliged him to break up the lines, to no good effect as far as I could tell.

The highlights of the evening were the exquisite duet ‘O Lovely Maid!’ in which Scholl and Argenta blended in such an affecting way, Scholl’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ which was absolute perfection, and ‘Your Words, O King’ which was sung with real fire and bitingly exact diction. There are very few musical pleasures greater than that of hearing a truly remarkable voice in a role for which it was made, and that was what we experienced on this evening; those wonderful lines ‘What language can my Grief express? Great was the Pleasure I enjoy’d in thee, And more than Woman’s Love thy wondrous Love to me!’ can seldom have been more exquisitely sung, and it was only a pity that their wondrous singer was not surrounded by equally remarkable colleagues – but perhaps that would be asking for the impossible.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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