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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Saul (1738) [149:39]
Rosemary Joshua (soprano) – Michal; Emma Bell (soprano) – Merab; Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor) – David; Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) – Jonathan; Michael Slattery (tenor) – High Priest, Witch of Endor; Finnur Bjarnason (tenor) – Amalekite, Abner; Henry Waddington (baritone) – Doeg, Samuel; Gidon Saks (bass-baritone) – Saul
RIAS Kammerchor, Concerto Köln/René Jacobs
rec. 2004, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Liner notes and short synopsis in French, English and German.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMY2921877-78 [74:33 + 75:06]

Saul, with a libretto by Charles Jennens, based on The First Book of Samuel, is one of Handel´s most dramatic oratorios. It was regularly revived during the composer’s lifetime and also survived the nineteenth century neglect of Handel’s great choral compositions. Messiah and a few others also did. It is still popular and has been successfully staged on several occasions. Winton Dean called it "one of the supreme masterpieces of dramatic art, comparable with The Oresteia and King Lear”. It has been recorded a number of times and I still treasure an Archiv recording (4476962) from 1973 under Charles Mackerras with the English Chamber Orchestra, Leeds Festival Chorus and a starry line-up of soloists with Donald McIntyre (Saul), Margaret Price, Sheila Armstrong, Ryland Davies, James Bowman, Stafford Dean and John Winfield. That recording has stood the test of time admirably, sonically as well as musically and I see no reason to scrap it after hearing René Jacobs' version, extremely good though it is. Concerto Köln, with which he also recorded Giulio Cesare, has long been one of the leading period instrument orchestras and they play with vitality and rhythmic swagger. You only need to listen to the overture to realise that this is the real thing. The 36-strong RIAS Kammerchor is another important building block in this production, powerful and fine-tuned and they really make the most of the choruses, so central to this drama.

Add to this the soloists, not all of them as well-known as their counterparts on the Mackerras recording (still available as a download) but each just as good. Rosemary Joshua’s light and silvery voice is ideal for Michal and Emma Bell, slightly fluttery as she sometimes is, has the technical capacity for the florid writing in her first aria. Lawrence Zazzo is one of the most outstanding counter-tenors of today and as David he out-sings James Bowman on the Mackerras set. Jeremy Ovenden is a truly excellent Jonathan. Birth and fortune, one of the great Handel arias, has rarely sounded so good. Michael Slattery, who is both the High Priest and the Witch of Endor, is also splendid and his reading of the remarkable aria Infernal spirits almost worth the price of this set alone. Gidon Saks is a monumental Saul and his arias are magnificently sung.

The recording is excellent and the notes informative and well written. I only wish the full texts had been available. I still like the Mackerras recording, having played it regularly for almost forty years, and will continue to play it, but this historically informed version will probably be my choice just as often in the future.

Göran Forsling