Saul is one of Handel's largest oratorios; its rich orchestration includes trumpets, trombones, timpani, harp, and carillon. René Jacobs certainly wrests every drop of color from this luxurious array of instruments, particularly in the choruses, which are gloriously grand but also extremely exciting. In Nos. 20-24, where the populace (with maddening relentlessness) praises David above Saul to the incessant jangling of the carillon, it's easy to understand why the king objects to the unseemly revelry. Handel's music wonderfully suggests both the joyous celebration and seeds of jealousy being planted in Saul's mind. Similarly, Jacobs' careful choice of colors for the continuo part makes the famous "Dead March" far more solemn than it often sounds, an appropriate introduction to Handel's "Elegy on the death of Saul and Jonathan".
The cast is nearly ideal. Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell, as Michal and Merab respectively, have nicely differentiated timbres. This is important because they both have a lot to sing in the first act, and along with David's countertenor this means that the lion's share of the work goes to high voices. Both sing beautifully, though Joshua could work a bit more on differentiating her short trills from other types of ornamentation. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo's David also is very fine, more masculine and less obviously "falsetto" than either James Bowman for Mackerras or Derek Lee Ragin for Gardiner. Tenor Michael Slattery, in the dual role of the High Priest and the Witch of Endor, has a blast with the latter, aided in no small degree by Jacobs' atmospheric conducting. This scene, with Gidon Saks an aptly tormented Saul, is a highlight of the performance.
As Jonathan, Jeremy Ovenden sounds a bit stiff and formal. He sings quite well, as do all the cast members, but his oratorio-like delivery stands out somewhat given Jacobs' highly operatic, dramatic approach to the work. As always, the RIAS Kammerchor is an absolute joy to listen to in the choruses, and the playing of Concerto Köln has plenty of "authentic" zest, but also some welcome beauty of tone. The oboes especially distinguish themselves with the outstanding accuracy and character of their playing, even at some very rapid tempos. Utterly natural engineering gives the big numbers the majesty they require without ever compromising the intimacy of the arias. Best of all, HM crams the whole work onto two CDs, as compared to Mackerras' and Gardiner's three. In short, this splendid release is the new reference edition for Handel's Saul, and a marvelous listening experience for choral music aficionados. [11/1/2005]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Reviewing original release of this recording