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S & H Prom Review

PROM 46: Handel, ‘Saul’ Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh, RAH, 24th August 2003 (ME)



This was, surprisingly, the first ever complete performance at the Proms of the work which Winton Dean called ‘one of the supreme masterpieces of dramatic art, comparable with the Oresteia and King Lear.’ Oh, come now – it’s a lovely piece, containing some of the composer’s most characteristic arias, but on a dramatic level it hardly stands comparison with Pericles, let alone King Lear. No matter: it deserves to be heard more frequently, and it’s such a pity that the only version available to us nowadays appears to be this rather turgid one, redeemed only by the presence of the wondrous Andreas Scholl as David – this is the second time this season that I’ve heard more or less the same forces performing it, which I assume means that the forthcoming recording is getting plenty of advance hype. Those who loved the work this evening will certainly gain great pleasure from hearing Scholl on the recording, but until that emerges I would suggest listening to the one conducted by John Eliot Gardiner which to me provides a far more dramatically and musically engaging concept of the piece.

I suppose ‘relaxed’ would be the word for the tempi, although Paul McCreesh seemed to have some rather wayward interpretations, two obvious examples being the duet ‘O fairest of ten thousand fair / O lovely maid’ which was taken at a positively skipping pace in contrast to the stately, gentle speed at which it usually enfolds, and neither Deborah York nor Scholl were helped by having to take it at such a lick: the second example was ‘O fatal consequence’ which was sung and played as though it were not a lament for a catastrophic deed but a pleasant commentary on a scenic day out. Fortunately the death march was appropriately solemn.

There was some beautiful playing to savour here, especially amongst the strings in ‘Along the monster atheist strode’ and the horns during the accompanied recitative ‘By thee this universal frame,’ and the chorus acquitted themselves well despite seeming to be held back at moments where I would have expected a little more forcefulness in attack. The solo parts were mostly competently taken, although I question whether that is enough: it was of course incredibly hot as usual in the hall, so perhaps some of the lacklustre singing could be thus accounted for. Neal Davies presented a fairly convincing Saul, always singing tastefully and with the right amount of imperious bluster, and Susan Gritton was a sympathetic Merab, haughty in her aria ‘What abject thoughts’ whilst managing to be believable when she accepts her sister’s choice; ‘Author of peace’ was one of the evening’s high points. I was less happy with Deborah York’s singing: I have not heard her often, but she seems to garner raves from many quarters, but as yet I don’t see anything exceptional. It is a small, piping voice, mostly quite clear and musical although her diction is often muddy and her tone rather thin – indisposition, perhaps.

Mark Padmore is another singer who collects rave reviews everywhere he goes: I admit to having given him one myself, for his ENO St. John Evangelist, but I am still waiting to hear him give another performance like that one. His voice is quite powerful, and he clearly loves this music with a passion, but the tone lacks individuality and he misses the tenderness needed for this role: such phrases as ‘darling of my Soul’ were factual rather than loving, and his singing of ‘Birth and fortune’ was disappointing in that he did very little with that wonderful line ‘From virtue let my friendship rise’ where there should be an airy trill at the end. He works hard at the music, so one can only hope that the recording will show him in a better light.

Every superlative has already been employed for Andreas Scholl, and I’ve used most of them myself, so it is probably best to convey his performance by the description of just one piece, ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless.’ Overall, this was not the finest rendition I have heard him give – there were small faults here and there – but his liquid tone, his lucent enunciation, his perfect phrasing and his fluent decorations remain unsurpassed. The quality of the silence with which the audience receives his singing has to be experienced to be believed: whatever critics may say about Proms audiences (and I know I’ve said plenty) they certainly understood how to take in this aria with a kind of trance-like raptness which I last saw….oh, probably the last time I heard him sing. Scholl is one of the true greats of our time, by which I mean that his is a unique voice allied to a strikingly individual and intelligent mind, and it was a renewed joy to hear him sing David.

The smaller parts were well taken, with the ubiquitous Jonathan Lemalu sonorously effective as the Ghost of Samuel and the sweet-toned Angus Smith persuasive as the Amalekite. The trouble was that the whole thing just lacked verve: for those who like their Handel with a bit of sparkle, this was a long evening, even though it was much relieved by Scholl’s singing of such lines as ‘Great was the Pleasure I enjoy’d in thee, And more than Woman’s Love thy wondrous Love to me!’


Melanie Eskenazi


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