Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I love… Saul

In our continuing series, Barry Creasy explores Handel’s oratorio Saul, to be broadcast as part of the BBC Proms.


Glyndebourne’s 2015 production of Saul (Photo: Bill Cooper)

“Mr. Handel’s head is more full of Maggots than ever: I found yesterday in His room a very queer Instrument which He calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell) & says some call it a Tubal-cain, I suppose because it is in the make and tone like a Hammer striking upon Anvils. ‘Tis played upon with Keys like a Harpsichord, & with this Cyclopean Instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad.” 

Although from the early 1730s Handel was beginning to attract audiences to his English oratorios (Esther, Deborah and Athalia), his first major hit in the genre was Saul, written in 1738. Handel clearly believed he was on to a winner with Saul (he was right), and, presumably inspired by the drama of the story, threw everything at it in terms of soloists (eleven) and orchestration – scoring the work for, by the standards of the time, a massive range of instruments, including trombones, extra woodwind, a harp, and the precursor of a celesta described above. The author expostulating in the quote about Handel’s ‘Maggots’ is none other than the oratorio’s librettist, Charles Jennens, who adapted the text for the oratorio from the biblical First Book of Samuel and Crowley’s epic poem Davideis. Saul was the first of several uneasy collaborations between Handel and Jennens, the most famous of which, of course, was Messiah some three years later.

Saul is certainly a tour de force of a work, and as close to an opera as you’re likely to get in the genre. As mentioned above, the story is full of drama of all sorts, the scenes shifting from triumphal martial entries (with aforementioned Carillon) to intimate love scenes; from a windy moor, where the witch of Endor raises the ghost of Samuel, to the tattered aftermath of the battle of Gilboa. We have tender hero worship of David from Saul’s daughter Michal (‘O godlike youth’), a deal of snobbish ‘not our class, dear’ from her older sister Merab (‘My soul rejects the thought with scorn’), a bout of jealous rage from Saul (‘A serpent, in my bosom warm’d’), and, interestingly, some intensely homoerotic arias depicting the love between David and Jonathan. It is the last of these that is, arguably, the most moving number of the oratorio: David’s lament for Jonathan’s death at the battle of Gilboa. The countertenor David soars above the chorus (‘O fatal day’), and then delivers the tenderest of arias: “For thee, my brother Jonathan, how great is my distress; what language can my grief express? Great was the pleasure I enjoy’d in thee, and more than woman’s love, thy wondrous love to me”.

In personal terms, this was my first introduction to Handel’s oratorios. Highlights from Messiah were naturally ever-present (I am from a musical Lancashire family; how could there not be an almost genetic link to Messiah and Elijah as the major musical highlights of the year?), but Saul was my first full-length-oratorio singing experience, at school in my early teens. The sheer range of the musical numbers entranced me from the start, and this was my first introduction to a grown-up countertenor soloist. It is unsurprising, then, that, when I grew old enough to start affording to buy vinyl box sets, the 1973 Mackerras recording (I think the only one available at the time) was one of my first purchases.

It’s a great recording, and remains my favourite. It’s just on the cusp of attempts at historically informed performances, so it doesn’t have the twinkle and pop of later recordings, but the soloists – although drawn mostly from the ‘we sing anything’ tradition (early music specialism was yet to come to its full flowering) – are big names: Donald McIntyre; Margaret Price; Sheila Armstrong; Ryland Davies; and, of course, the great inheritor of the Deller tradition, James Bowman.

“Handel clearly believed he was on to a winner with Saul (he was right)…”

Since the Mackerras version, recordings of the oratorio have grown apace with the rise in historically informed performances, and the whole early music boom, and there are accounts by all of the usual suspects: Philip Ledger (1981); Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1985); John Eliot Gardiner (1989); Paul McCreesh (2004); René Jacobs (2005); Helmuth Rilling (2007) and Harry Christophers (2012). In 2015, Barrie Kosky achieved at Glyndebourne what Handel – due to ecclesiastical strictures – ­could not: create a fully staged and costumed version (albeit that Kosky opted to set the piece in an 18th century burlesque fantasy world rather than give it a Biblical Epic twist).

The wide choice of recordings allows a range of styles, and, as always, there is no ‘perfect’ version. René Jacobs’ account, as would be expected, presents a full sound, with trademark timbres of the original instruments turned up to full. His Saul (Gidon Saks) is both edgy and dark, and the two sopranos contrast in just the right way: Rosemary Joshua’s hero worshipping Michal against Emma Bell’s richer, vibrato laden tones for the jealous, snobbish Merab. My issue here, though, is Laurence Zazzo, who takes the role of David. There are many who love Zazzo’s voice, but for my taste it is just a shade too full.

I prefer an edge to my countertenors (although not too shrill; it’s a delicate balance), and of all the Davids, I’d suggest that Daniel Taylor, performing for Helmuth Rilling’s account, really fits the bill. Again, Rilling contrasts Kirsten Blaise (Michal) and Elizabeth Keutsch (Merab) well, and his tempi and timbres are brisk and full of sparkle, but Markus Eiche as Saul doesn’t quite deliver the goods on darkness. Harry Christophers’ version offers a different slant on David, featuring Dame Sarah Connolly in the role; an interesting choice that certainly challenges Handel’s original intention (‘Mr Russell’). Performers also include, of course, The Sixteen, and the precision and sparkle here (particularly in the chorus) are brilliant. Christopher Purves makes for a splendidly edgy Saul.

Of the more modern recordings, my first choice (in that it seems to tick most of the boxes) would be Paul McCreesh’s 2004 account – the fourth of a set of Handel oratorios by The Gabrieli Consort & Players begun, in 1997, with their Messiah. Neal Davies’ Saul is as dark as you’d want, and full of beetle-browed dramatic utterance (one can even imagine him following Handel’s sole ‘stage direction’ at the end of ‘A serpent in My Bosom Warm’d’: “Throws his javelin”). The rest of the cast is pretty stellar, and includes Nancy Argenta as Michal, Mark Padmore as Jonathan, and the splendid Andreas Scholl as David. The wonderfully resonant Jonathan Lemalu also puts in a cameo appearance as the ghost of the prophet Samuel.

The McCreesh recording was planned – as many are – as the apotheosis of a number of live performances of the work the year before. One of these was a concert in the 2003 BBC Proms, and those wishing to listen to it will be pleased to hear that this performance has been chosen as one of the archive Proms to be broadcast (on BBC Radio 3 on 16 August) as part of their Covid pandemic alternative programming. The lineup is much the same as that in the recording, although Nancy Argenta is replaced by Deborah York.

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Why I love… Saul