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Fanfare Magazine:
29:4 (03/2006)
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020187753


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Reviewer: Melanie Eskenazi

Saul is one of Handel's greatest works, containing some of his most moving, challenging and inspiring music as well as some of his most dramatic and subtle presentations of character, so it is no surprise that it has been well, and often, recorded. Of the versions currently available, including this latest one, each has virtues, but for connoisseurs of Handel-singing there is no single obvious recommendation, despite the ravings that have attended both this version and the recent recording by the Gabrieli Consort under Paul McCreesh.

As you would expect from Jacobs and Concerto Köln, the playing is lively, stylish, and distinctive, with exceptional management of contrasts such as that between grandeur and bellicosity: the choral singing of the RIAS Kammerchor could not be bettered, especially in the superb “Envy! Eldest born of hell!“ and the melancholy shading of “O fatal day!“ In these areas, and in Jacobs's own eloquent keyboard-playing, this set stands out despite the usual idiosyncratic continuo introductions and occasional questionable use of ornamentation: however, in terms of the solo-singing it cannot compare to that offered on the Gardiner (Polygram) and McCreesh (Archiv) versions.

Jacobs has a very interesting David in Lawrence Zazzo, but his tone is rather dry; and although he provides plenty of vocal fireworks, these are not always offered where they are most appropriate. He is no match for Andreas Scholl on Archiv, whose “O Lord, whose mercies numberless“ is simply peerless, and whose articulation in “Your words, O king“ is an object lesson in technique used in the service of the music. Just listen to how Scholl shapes and caresses the lines and gives powerful intensity to the emotion in lines like “What language can my grief express? . . . more than woman's love thy wondrous love to me!“ and then hear Zazzo's perfectly decent, but unremarkable version. Gardiner's David is Derek Lee Ragin, whose singing is always musical, but his rather thin tone is no match for Scholl's lucent stream of sound.

Jeremy Ovenden's singing of Jonathan is in a similar style to that of Zazzo, that is to say highly competent but rather arid in tone: he decorates his music neatly but cannot match the tenderness nor the Handelian style of John Mark Ainsley in Gardmer's recording, whose flourishes on “From Virtue let my friendship rise“ and moving singing of “But sooner Jordan's Stream“ easily outclass both Ovenden and Mark Padmore (for McCreesh). The Saul of Gidon Saks on the present recording is sharply characterized but lacking in the requisite grandeur and hubris. Alastair Miles on Polygram is easily the finest recorded singer in this role, both anguish and duplicity wonderfully brought out in singing of real power and edge.

I found the women on this recording very disappointing: I have admired Rosemary Joshua on stage, but her Michal sounds thin and lacking in warmth, especially in “O fairest of ten thousand fair,“ where Lynne Dawson (Gardiner) produces such affectingly graceful singing. Emma Bell is reliable as Merab, but she, too, does not live up to my expectations from her opera performances. The smaller roles are likewise sound but unremarkable, with the second tenor easily outclassed by Neil Mackie on Polygram.

Jacobs has superb choral singing and orchestral playing, but the soloists are not on the level of the two other leading versions: I would not want to be without Scholl's unrivalled David (for McCreesh) so that version would have to be chosen over Jacobs; but for the other roles, especially those of Jonathan and Saul, I would have to recommend the Gardiner recording.


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