In the late 1980s I saw a performance of Handel’s Saul
the Berlin Philharmonie. It had Andreas Schmidt in the title
role and employed a rich-voiced mezzo-soprano - in a big pink
frock - as David. The whole performance seemed to misunderstand
the essence of Handel’s great oratorio and Schmidt’s
account of Saul
was, frankly, rather boring. It rather
prejudiced me against non-English attempts to perform Handel’s
oratorios. But with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau in the title role this recording, taken from
a live concert, should surely have been a big improvement on
my memories of that concert.
In fact, Harnoncourt’s recording Saul
was made just
four years before John Eliot Gardiner’s iconic account
of the same work. Despite both recordings using period instrument
forces for the accompaniment, the differences could not be more
marked. That Gardiner’s recording was made in the studio
cannot fully account for the fact that Harnoncourt’s live
recording has a rather old-fashioned feel.
Harnoncourt is a far more interventionist conductor than Gardiner,
tending to pull tempi about and to favour less brisk speeds.
We can’t ever know exactly what Handel’s interpretations
sounded like, so must accept that any attempt at period practice
will generally reflect the prejudices current at the time of
the performance. But for me, Gardiner belongs to the school which
enables us to see Handel with clean lines whereas Harnoncourt
seems more akin to previous generations of Handel conductors
who felt the need to impose themselves on the music. This is
also reflected in Harnoncourt’s textual decisions; being
recorded at a live concert, Harnoncourt has inevitably trimmed
the work. But his trimmings include some movements of the overture
and internal sections of some other movements. The role of the
High Priest has been virtually removed, but perhaps more damagingly
David loses ‘Haughty Beauties’ from Act 2 and ‘Brave
Jonathan’ from the Elegy in Act 3.
A key to the style of the performance may be gained from the
casting: Saul is played by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Merab
by Julia Varady. These singers are not renowned for their baroque
style. Add to this that the chorus is sung by the concert choir
of the Vienna State Opera. Concentus Musicus Wien might provide
stylish period accompaniment, but the performances by Dieskau,
Varady and the chorus are firmly rooted in pre-period practice
traditions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but an unwary
buyer might be tempted by the credentials of Harnoncourt and
Concentus Musicus Wien, and so be disappointed.
I found the chorus’s sound to be rather too thick and congested
for the work. It is not just a question of size, but with their
strong, rich vibrato-led sound, the singers just fail to articulate
the choruses with the clarity of line that you get from the best
English choirs. It does not help that they are inhibited by having
to sing in English. I am not talking about diction here; it is
just that it is easier for Anglophone choirs to articulate the
meaning of the text in ways which elude some foreign choirs.
Oratorio is always about text, the purpose of the music is to
make the text expressive and this must come over in the choruses.
It is no good admiring the sound of the chorus in ‘Envy!
eldest-born of Hell’ if we are aware that the comprehension
and expressiveness of the text lies well behind the beauty of
the vocal sound.
There are compensations. Anthony Rolfe Johnson is an incomparable
Jonathan; a stylish singer with the ability to bridge the worlds
between period and non-period practice. Paul Esswood makes a
light, stylish David, though his soft-grained, vibrato-imbued
voice might not be to everyone’s taste. More importantly,
there are times when the upper reaches of the role - it was after
all written for a female mezzo-soprano - seem to test him somewhat
with his tone rather thinning. But then again, David Lee Ragin
for John Eliot Gardiner is also something of an acquired taste.
Lynne Dawson as Michal starts off too vibrantly, with too rich
a vibrato but she gradually settles down and displays a nice
feel for Handelian line.
It is this feel for Handelian line which escapes Dieskau and
Varady. Dieskau turns in an impressive dramatic performance as
the tormented King, but he fails to understand how to make Handel’s
music expressive. Too often he blusters when he should be using
the notes for expressive purposes, and at other times he tries
to put too much weight on the line - in recitatives for instance.
In an ideal performance the singer uses the notes to create the
drama, but here Fischer-Dieskau seems to be applying his conception
of the drama to the music. We must also consider that Dieskau
was sixty when the recording was made and had sung a vast range
of drama from Mozart to Wagner and beyond. This was perhaps not
the ideal point in his career to have recorded Saul
Varady, nearly twenty years younger than Dieskau, would seem
to have all the vocal equipment needed for an ideal performance
of Merab’s music. Granted she sings with a pronounced vibrato,
but at this stage of the proceedings I ceased to care and would
have been grateful for a simply stylish performance. She gets
Merab’s temperament spot-on, but her English is a bit ungainly
and she does not always seem to understand how to sing Handel.
Helmut Wildhaber plays a number of small roles, and loses his
way somewhat in the Witch of Endor Scene. The small role of Samuel
in this scene is strongly delivered by Matthias Hölle.
It might have been hoped that bringing together a great performer
like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and a great role like Handel’s
Saul would result in a performance which had the power to transcend
style issues. Unfortunately this is not the case here, Dieskau’s
Saul is not really Handel’s Saul.
The CD booklet contains an article about the oratorio. The libretto
(along with French and German translations) can be downloaded
from the Warner Classics web-site, though I must confess that
I entirely failed to persuade the web-site to let me do so.
If you want a recording of Handel’s Saul
Eliot Gardiner’s account remains a benchmark. Alternatively
I would consider René Jacobs’ more recent recording
which has its controversial aspects, but Jacobs certainly creates
a dramatically convincing account of the work. I’m afraid
that this performance from Harnoncourt and Dieskau is really
for admirers only.