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
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.