Harnoncourt's recording of 'Saul' was first issued by Teldec in 1986, re-issued in 1995 and then again in 2009 – the first two with a German baroque painting of the death of Saul on the box cover, replaced by a Dutch Golden Age still life for the 2009 re-issue. Amidst an impressive choice of recordings of the great work, Harnoncourt's account is notable for several reasons. One is that this is a live recording, made in Vienna; another is the mix of British and continental soloists; and the third factor, the one which stands out most clearly, is the conductor's dramatic and heartfelt vision of the work.
That powerful insight is very effectively shared by the performers - the soloists, the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Concentus Musicus Wien ensemble. All the great choral and orchestral set pieces go superbly, with energetic choruses and splendid instrumental symphonies. To take only a few examples, the celebratory choruses in Part 1, such as 'How excellent thy name, o Lord' and 'Welcome, welcome, mighty king' are vigorous and incisive, expressing both the joy and the majesty of Handel's score. Opening Part 2, the uniquely powerful 'Envy, eldest born of hell!' receives a somewhat unusual rendering, its hushed opening tiptoe-ing in stealthily at a fairly quick tempo, with initially subdued anger rising and falling rather than being belted out with the grim, sustained fury it more usually conveys. This approach may not be to everyone's taste, but musically I found it highly effective. Later on, 'Oh fatal consequence of rage' is both vigorous and deeply felt, and 'O fatal day!' is extremely affecting.
The soloists are every bit as good. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau makes a superb Saul, baring his soul in this powerful character role, with a distinct accent to his English which to me doesn't matter one bit. Julia Varady is an excellent Merab, again with an accent – but you soon get used to it and, since all the characters are foreign anyway, who cares? Paul Esswood, at his very best here, is outstanding as David. Elizabeth Gale's Michal and Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Jonathan respond equally well, the whole team of soloists rising to the inspiration of Harnoncourt's vision of this mighty psychological drama.
The recorded sound takes some getting used to, sounding just a bit lightweight at times; but listeners with tone controls can compensate for this quite effectively. So the choir's words are sometimes hard to make out, and the carillon in the Symphony at the end of Act 1, scene 2, sounds a bit feeble. Harnoncourt made a few cuts for this live performance, mainly to some recitative and da capo passages, but nothing that bothers me. So the work occupies two well-filled CDs, as opposed to the more usual three.
'Saul' has been increasingly fortunate on disc in recent years, with well-regarded versions available from Gardiner, Neumann, McCreesh, Christophers, Rademann and Jacobs. Apart from the present set, my favourites are those directed by McCreesh and Jacobs - the former an outstanding all-rounder, and the latter virtually matching Harnoncourt in penetrating to the very heart of Handel's psychological drama, and in better recorded sound. I'm not familiar with the Gardiner, Christophers or Rademann recordings.
Booklet notes are good, and texts and translations are supplied. Altogether, Harnoncourt's imaginative and compelling vision of 'Saul' is a stunning success, and to say that it's worth experiencing would be an understatement. For completeness and outstanding recorded sound, however, if I had to pick a single version it would probably be the one from René Jacobs.