The Sixteen/Harry Christophers at Barbican Hall – Handel’s Saul [Christopher Purves & Sarah Connolly]

Saul – Oratorio in three parts to a text by Charles Jennens

David – Sarah Connolly
Saul – Christopher Purves
Jonathan – Robert Murray
Merab – Elizabeth Atherton
Michal – Joélle Harvey
Witch of Endor – Jeremy Budd
High Priest – Mark Dobell
Ghost of Samuel – Stuart Young
Doeg – Ben Davies
Abner – Eamonn Dougan
Amalekite – Tom Raskin

The Sixteen Choir & Orchestra
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: John-Pierre Joyce

Reviewed: 22 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Over three decades The Sixteen has carved out a considerable reputation for the performance of choral and instrumental music from the pre-Classical repertoire. Many of the awards garnered have come from work in the recording studio. But whether the ensemble’s finely crafted chamber approach would work in the Barbican Hall was uncertain.

The SixteenComing from the pen of a composer still enthralled by Italian opera, Handel’s oratorio Saul contains plenty of high drama and strong characterisation. Yet given the Biblical subject matter, it also includes plenty of contemplative passages which sometimes sit awkwardly with Handel’s flashier, crowd-pleasing turns.

The Sixteen’s singing and playing personnel and the soloists fared best with the work’s reflective moments. Sarah Connolly as David overshadowed the rest of the cast with a performance of controlled delicacy. Her deft delivery of the Act Two air ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ left the audience silently impressed. Robert Murray invested the role of Jonathan with just the right amount of pathos and dignity, while Joélle Harvey made for a sweet-toned Michal. The character of Saul himself is a deeply complex one, and not easy to bring off. But Christopher Purves really didn’t help matters with his over-acting and vocal exaggeration.

As for The Sixteen Choir, its finest moments came in the mournful third Act, with plenty of opportunities to display the singers’ talents for tonal balance and expressivity. Yet the choir (totalling eighteen) was too reduced in size to do justice to the massed voices of the Israelites in the first two Acts. The Messiah-like ‘Hallelujah’ in the opening scene was serviceable but hardly arousing. An enlarged orchestra (including harp, trombones and carillon) offered more volume and colour. But for all his urgency and hand-sculpting, Harry Christophers never quite carved out a masterpiece.

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