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GRAMOPHONE ( 11/2005)
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode : 3149020187753

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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp


Saul, Handel's first great oratorio, has over the last 15 years or so become one of his most popular on disc, a consequence no doubt of its textural and musical variety, dramatic urgency and sheer entertainment value. There is something for everyone here : rollicking choral celebrations of Israelite victories at the start, balanced at the end by outpourings of national grief, with the stern moral pronouncement of 'Envy, eldest born of hell!' in between; superb arias for a vivid cast of characters, one of whom is a compelling tragic hero of Shakespearian stature; and a good helping of instrumental interest, with Handel ingeniously using orchestral movements to signal the passing of time.


Rene Jacobs's recording follows only a little over a year after Paul McCreesh's well regarded, high-production-value account for DG and readers familiar with both conductors' styles will know what kinds of contrast to expect. Jacobs's understanding of the dramatic workings of Baroque opera and oratorio is second to none and, as usual, his performance is outstandingly successful in linking Handel's sequences of numbers into a coherent whole, with recitatives flowing in and out of arias, and choruses arriving and departing with real purpose. The performance also gains theatrical presence by its punchy sound : the orchestra is well represented in the balance - undoubtedly a good thing in view of Concerto Köln's vibrant playing while the RIAS Chamber Choir are encouraged to let dramatic concerns take precedence over the more smoothly produced ' English anthem' sound of McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort. Indeed, there is a distinctly continental whiff to Jacobs's choruses which he heightens (some might say distractingly) through the use of 'French'-style final-note trills.


Jacobs's customary attention to detail in recitatives, backed up by some imaginative instrumentation, also draws vital responses from his soloists; certainly Gidon Saks's manly Saul sounds more dangerously volatile in these than he does in his arias, though this may be more Handel's fault than his. The other singers strike a better balance and, while not as starry a line-up as McCreesh's (where the presence of Andreas Scholl as David will be recommendation enough for many), are nevertheless well chosen to achieve a 'company' result. Sopranos Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell are effectively contrasted as Saul's daughters, while Jeremy Ovenden cuts a humane but incisively heroic figure as Jonathan. Lawrence Zazzo's David cannot match the sheer vocal allure of Scholl but comes across as more rounded figure - this, after all, is a character who has to be both a sensitive musician and a warrior-leader.


If it is dramatic involvement you want from Saul, then Jacobs's is the one to have, though it certainly should not turn you against McCreesh's classy product, or the excellent though less consistently well sung 1989 recording by John Eliot Gardiner, shortly to be reissued in a box-set along with Solomon, Jephtha and Israel in Egypt. If money is no object (and note that Jacobs gets his performance onto two discs to everyone else's three). you could do worse than treat yourself to more than one.

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