Today's listener is probably most familiar with Handel's works through such pieces as The Messiah, the Water Music, and the Royal Fireworks Music, but Handel actually focused the greatest part of his life composing oratorios, the Messiah being perhaps the most famous example. Much less known to today's listeners is Handel's magnificent orchestral work, including the immense Concerto Grossi opus 3 and 6 and the dimunutive Concerti a due cori, but these are true gems of composition worthy of exploration by anyone interested in Baroque music.
But back to the oratorios. Handel wrote a multitude of these while living in England ("Jeptha," "Solomon," "Judas Macabbaeus," "Israel in Egypt," etc.), and their acceptance by the British public during that time made Handel a national hero, certainly one of the most popular and well loved persons in Britain at the time. A sampling of these oratorios, though written in a manner to which our modern music tuned ears are not accustomed, quickly explains why Handel achieved such notoriety: these works exhibit immense beauty, powerfully emotive sound, and often sublime pathos. It's not hard to understand why Beethoven himself regarded Handel as the greatest composer with whom he was acquainted, lavishing him with the ultimate compliment that Handel could take a small handful of instruments and turn them into something that appeared much larger and complex.
Handel's "Saul" is perhaps far less explored than the most popular of his oratorios, but it is a worthy exploration. For anyone not familiar with the story, the libretto covers King Saul's interactions with David as David emerges as a well loved figure in the kingdom, and when the story is understood, we can sit back and watch Handel take the theme and weave it into a musical masterpiece. And this he surely does, and we are easily convinced of this before the work is half finished, being treated early on in the work to blasts of praise, shows of anger and jealously, exultations of triumph, and quiet expressions of sorrow and unease. How can Handel handle this in so short a time period? It seems impossible, but he pulls it off, and the story continues to become more enriched and complicated as we move through the work.
This particular recording of the Saul by Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir certainly ranks among the best of the various available recordings. As with nearly all Gardiner productions, the sound is superb, with outstanding performance by both the choir and orchestra, all excellently captured with state of the art recording equipment (in the 1970's, all in analogue, but expertly converted to digital). There is no harshness in the sound, and the sonics are simply outstanding, both with solo and group movements. It's hard to find any area of the recording or the performance to complain about.
I can easily recommend this recording to any Handel, Baroque, or classical enthusiast. I have greatly enjoyed the work, and there are pieces within the work that stand out as simply superb examples of musical composition, the diamonds amongst the gold of the work. Philips has reissued this recording (along with many of Gardiner's other works), making the cost much more affordable than ever before. This is a five star performance and a five star recording. Highly recommended.
Other Gardiner Recordings of Handel's Oratorios:
- Handel - Solomon / Watkinson, Argenta, Hendricks, Rolfe Johnson, EBS, Monteverdi Choir, Gardiner
- Händel: Messiah
- Händel: Israel in Egypt, etc / John Eliot Gardiner
- Händel: Alexander's Feast