George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Saul (1738) [135:58]
Saul - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
David - Paul Esswood (counter-tenor)
Jonathan - Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (tenor)
Michal - Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Merab - Julia Varady (soprano)
Witch of Endor, Amelikite, High Priest - Helmut Wildhaber (tenor)
Samuel - Matthias Hölle (baritone)
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. MusikVerein, Vienna, 28 April 1985
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 68698-3 [68:39 + 67:19] 

In the late 1980s I saw a performance of Handel’s Saul in 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 then John 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.

Robert Hugill