Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Welcome to Hell, Here's Your Bassoon: Saul @ Handel & Haydn, Boston

Being arguably the most metal of Handel oratorios, Saul presents a conductor a wide range of opportunities to stomp the effects pedals and up the drama quotient by way of the orchestra. But we knew from his recording with The Sixteen that Harry Christophers is one to resist those temptations, and our expectations were borne out on Sunday when he brought the work to Symphony Hall in Boston with his American gig, the Handel & Haydn Society.

If there was anything that stood out about the Christophers approach, it was his skill at making room for the singers, and leaving the drama, by and large, for them to create. If there was a certain chemistry lacking among the singers, it was also a very short run of two performances. Nevertheless, there was some extraordinary singing, not least from the David of Iestyn Davies (if there's a broadcast, that sound you'll hear at the start of O Lord Whose Mercies Numberless is everybody moving to the edge of their seats) and -- perhaps the standout -- the Michal of Joelle Harvey.

The chemistry vacuum was probably not helped by this being a fairly straight-up concert performance, with comparatively minimal singer interaction. There were some thumbnail gestures toward the drama -- Saul (a very good, if reserved, Jonathan Best), after his first address to David, turning to walk off but being arrested by David's long, bell-like note on O King, for instance, -- but in this day and age of increasingly sophisticated semi-stagings, we've come to look for a little more. There was certainly room for more. Or maybe we've just gotten used to Handel oratorios performed with an operatic sensibility for which they weren't really designed, and so it's unfair to judge them accordingly. My jury is out, and anyway this is more a quibble than a complaint.

The Handel & Haydn Society has been in existence since Haydn was a New Music composer, so in spite of this being (remarkably) the first assay of this oratorio in the history of the orchestra, the execution was smooth without being anodyne. And if any one thing was worth the price of admission, it was the H&H chorus, who surfed some of Handel's most exquisite choral writing with impeccable balance, dramatic flare, and close attention to dynamics.


  1. most metal? I should get acquainted with it, then.

    (it's dehggi, the OpenID is faulty)

    1. think early to mid eighties Iron Maiden

    2. ha! no kidding. I've gone through the first hour and I must admit I was wrong to skip it last year at Glyndebourne. It's very good indeed.


  2. Hi Stray,
    I've closed my opera blog due to lack of time. It'll be my please if you drop by my piano blog
    Comparing to operasora this site has a low traffic and I have my peace:-)
    Warm regard from Germany

    1. I will do that, thank you for the update!