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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Saul (1739) [157.13]
Michal – Nancy Argenta (soprano)
Merab – Laurie Revio (soprano)
David – Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Jonathan – Marc LeBrocq (tenor)
The Witch of Endor, High Priest, An Amalekite – Michael Berner (tenor)
Samuel, Doeg - Steffen Balbach (bass)
Saul - Stephen Varcoe (bass)
Maulbronner Kammerchor
Die Hannoversche Hofkapelle/Jurgen Budday
rec. live, Maulbronn Monastery, 28-29 September 2002
K&K VERLAGSANSTALT 3-930643-83-9 [77.48 + 79.25]
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This is one of a series of live recordings of Handel oratorios from Maulbronn Monastery being issued on CD. On paper this one, from 2002, has a strong cast.
The first limitation is that the work is cut, but at least this means that it does fit onto two CDs. The biggest victim is the High Priest, who loses three arias and David loses “Such Haughty Beauties”. Performers often cut the High Priest’s music as his arias add very little to the dramatic narrative and are a convenient way of shortening the piece without too much damage.
But the recording’s main drawback is its lack of dramatic impetus. Charles Jennens provided a libretto that was full of dramatic potential and Handel responded with one of his greatest dramatic oratorios. He even included stage directions. Unfortunately a feeling for this notional stage-setting does not find its way into this performance.
Stephen Varcoe’s Saul is well enough sung; in fact he has a fine sense of line and shapes the music beautifully. But he is simply too nice and normal sounding; from his very first utterance “What do I hear”, Saul must be angry and not a little mad. Varcoe never convinces us that Saul’s jealousy is always just beneath the surface.
As the object of this jealousy, Michael Chance is in better voice than he is in the Belshazzar recording in the same series. Chance has some lovely moments in the lyrical passages and especially in the Elegy. But we are aware that his voice is not what it was. Also, in Acts 1 and 2 he does not really make David’s niceness very interesting.
The same is true of Nancy Argenta’s Michal. Her performance is well enough, but lacks dramatic interest. And her voice tends towards vibrato on the longer notes. Laurie Reviols, as Merab, fails to compensate for the part being rather under-written. She could do with being a lot more shrewish.
Marc LeBrocq is more at home as Jonathan than he is as Belshazzar in the other recording in this series. But he suffers from the same lack of drama as everyone else. Also, his voice tends to hardness in the upper register.
Michael Berner sings all the other tenor roles (High Priest, Witch of Endor and the Amalekite, Abner). His Witch of Endor is reedy and nasal, rather robbing Handel’s superb scene of some of its dramatic potential. But the Witch of Endor scene and the final elegy are virtually performer-proof and these are the strongest on the disc.
The chorus, the Maulbronner Kammerchor, sing pretty well, allowing for the odd slip due to the live occasion. Their English diction is OK, but they fail to make enough of the words.
They are well supported by the crisp playing of the Hannoversche Hofkapelle. Conductor Jurgen Budday has a good feel for Handel’s music but the lack of dramatic impetus in the performance must surely be laid at his door.
There are a number of strong performances of Saul in the catalogue. Many are substantially uncut. So I cannot honestly say that I can recommend this recording. The performance is creditable enough, but unless you are interested in these particular performers, the lack of drama means that the essential core of the work is missing.
Robert Hugill



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