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Fanfare Magazine: 36:4 (03-04/2013)   
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"I mentioned period-instrument performances earlier, and I would say that this recording is now the most recommendable of them all."
Reviewer: Jonathan Woolf

A number of decisions await the prospective purchaser of Saul. Leaving to one side for the moment the question of period instruments, perhaps the most interesting decision concerns the voice type for the role of David. In this disc Harry Christophers cites the scholarship of Anthony Hicks, who was convinced that the role was intended for Maria Antonia Marchesini, who had already sung successfully for Handel in Faramondo and Serse. It is her name, we are told, which is written in the autograph, notably alongside David’s “O fatal day.” But we also know that she didn’t sing at the premiere and a replacement, a man called Russell, was employed for the task. Whether or not he was a countertenor or a singing actor, and whether or not he did sing it transposed down, as suggested, we shall presumably never know. So, to some extent your choice for a set of Saul will depend on whether (or not) it matters to you if David is sung by a soprano, as here (Sarah Connolly) or by such as Andreas Scholl (for Paul McCreesh), Lawrence Zazzo for René Jacobs, or, further back, James Bowman for Charles Mackerras. Decisions will also relate to the orchestral fabric of the performance. From the start of this recording one can hear some luminaries of the period movement. Two of the most prominent and, indeed, audible are violinist and leader Walter Reiter and the first oboist Anthony Robson. They and their confreres in the orchestra provide bracing, sensitive, color-conscious contributions of the highest class. Notable amongst such moments is the beautiful harp playing of Frances Kelly in the Symphony at the heart of act I scene 6. In the triumphant and celebratory moments the band’s trumpeters offer punchy, rounded tone.

Harry Christophers takes excellent tempos, neither rushing his forces, nor lingering too elastically: His is a central reading, avoiding dogmatism and excess, remaining grounded in practicality and intelligibility. The music generates tension by virtue of its incremental unfolding of plot and theme, and Christophers serves it well. The central roles are those of David and Saul himself. Sarah Connolly is an outstanding David. Her “O Lord, whose mercies numberless” is a masterly example of legato expressiveness, and each of her recitatives is paced with a proper concern for textual significance. Christopher Purves’s Saul is packed with theatrical menace. He sings with frightening power, and connives with malicious spite. The trajectory of his rise and fall is plotted with quasi-Shakespearean relish, and he responds with the kind of venomous characterization that raises his stature still further. His voice is not as intrinsically attractive as that of, say, Donald McIntyre for Mackerras, but Purves make you believe him every inch the deranged king. I was fortunate enough to be at the Barbican in London when these forces performed Saul and I remember very clearly Sarah Connolly looking across at Purves—they were quite widely spaced on stage—with a thin, approving smile as he raged away.

The other parts are all characterfully taken. It’s difficult to make too much of the role of Jonathan but Robert Murray sings with straightforward nobility, and he’s clearly an astute musician. It’s important that the roles of the sisters Merab and Michal are sufficiently differentiated. Elizabeth Atherton takes the former, and Joélle Harvey the latter, and I would say that there is just enough to grant them a sense of independent characterization, though both come under just a touch of vocal pressure occasionally. Mark Dobell, the High Priest, is a member of The Sixteen, here expanded to 18, as is Jeremy Budd who sings the role of the Witch of Endor and does so, moreover, without any spurious effects, which is all to the good. The Sixteen sings superbly in the choruses, fluidly negotiating the counterpoint, withdrawing tone, when required, or belting it out—but retaining clarity—in the affirmatory choruses.

The recording was made in St. Augustine’s Church Kilburn, London, and is first-class in every respect. The booklet is sensibly laid out and the text is in good font size. I mentioned period-instrument performances earlier, and I would say that this recording is now the most recommendable of them all. It is more centrally recommendable than Harnoncourt (with Fischer-Dieskau, no less) and McCreesh (despite Scholl) because it lacks their occasional idiosyncrasies. The singing here is more incisive and memorable than the Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi. Purves, in particular, sings more vividly than Alastair Miles for John Eliot Gardiner on Philips. Each of the recordings of Saul, actually, has many things going for it—I harbor a strong affection for Mackerras—and my list isn’t exhaustive: There’s the old Mogens Wöldike LP set on Vanguard to remember too, with Helen Watts, and the much more recent Philip Ledger on EMI, amongst others. Still, if you’re looking for a new, period performance you won’t go wrong with this set.

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