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Album Reviews

Handel’s ‘Saul,’ Mendelssohn siblings, and Bach’s influence

“Handel: ‘Saul’” the Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers.

HANDEL: “SAUL”

The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers

(Coro; three CDs)

Handel’s 1738 oratorio “Saul” is among his great works, but with a running time in excess of 2½ hours, it doesn’t turn up often in concert. There’s no shortage of recordings; what’s unusual about this new one from Handel and Haydn Society artistic director Harry Christophers and The Sixteen is that David is sung by a mezzo-soprano, Sarah Connolly, rather than by a countertenor. The liner notes even suggest that Handel might have written the part for a mezzo as a way of making his audience feel less uncomfortable about the love that David and Jonathan express for each other. Whatever, Connolly’s is the best voice on the set, warm, tender, and, in the aria “O Lord, whose mercies numberless,” full of balm for Saul.

One could hardly ask for a more dramatic libretto. Saul may be king of Israel, but the young shepherd David, who’s just slain Goliath, is the hero of the moment, and Saul is consumed by jealousy. Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, is in love with David and eventually is allowed to marry him; yet of Saul’s son Jonathan, David sings, “And more than woman’s love / thy wondrous love to me!”

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Saul and Jonathan die fighting the Philistines, and David becomes king. It’s a tragic story, but here both Christopher Purves’s Saul and Robert Murray’s Jonathan seem a tad undercharacterized. Elizabeth Atherton is shrill and scornful as Saul’s older daughter, Merab, who’s given to David but doesn’t want him; Joélle Harvey’s Michal is sweeter. Some of the faster arias lack flexibility, but the slower ones soar, and so does the chorus.

JEFFREY GANTZ

Ebene Quartet, String Quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn (

Virgin

“Quatuor Ebène” by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

FELIX & FANNY MENDELSSOHN

Quatuor Ebène

(Virgin Classics)

The Ebène, one of the finest quartets to come out of France in some time, continues to move from strength to strength. Here they place two quartets by Felix Mendelssohn, from the beginning and end of his creative output, around one by his sister Fanny, a talented composer who published virtually nothing during her lifetime. The earlier of Felix’s quartets (Op. 13, in A minor) brims with invention, as the young composer openly acknowledges and works through his debt to Beethoven. His final quartet (Op. 80, in F minor) seethes with pain, a cry for answers composed in the wake of his beloved sister’s death.

Felix himself would die just two months after completing the quartet, at the impossibly unjust age of 38. One wonders at the new horizons he might have opened, so compact and innovative is the F-minor quartet’s rhetoric. As for Fanny, her own String Quartet in E-flat is beautiful, well structured, and heartfelt music. If it doesn’t quite match her brother’s works for innovation, it’s still worth much more exposure than it gets.

Where the Ebène’s earlier recordings were notable largely for their wide timbral range, these Mendelssohn performances succeed (brilliantly) because of the unremitting fervency with which the quartet infuses the music. The F-minor quartet launches with a buzz of frantic activity, and by the time it ends the tension has become almost unbearable. Fanny’s quartet relaxes the mood somewhat, but even it has a muscular, physical quality to which the Ebène takes uncannily. Taut, dramatic, and completely convincing.

DAVID WEININGER

Anna Gourari, “Canto Oscuro.”

ECM

Anna Gourari, “Canto Oscuro.”

CANTO OSCURO

Anna Gourari, piano

(ECM)

This smartly crafted and beautifully played recital by pianist Anna Gourari unfolds like a history of Bach’s enduring influence in the 20th century. It opens with Ferruccio Busoni’s famously lush arrangement of the chorale prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.” A few seconds of silence separate its conclusion from the jarring opening chords of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Chaconne,” a dense exploration of the dance form Bach elevated to artistic immortality in his D-minor Partita for violin.

Like Bach, Gubaidulina pursues a basic chord sequence to its outer expressive limits before the initial theme returns, muted, at the end.

A piano transcription of the Chaconne by Russian composer Alexander Siloti appears as the CD’s penultimate track.

At the center of “Canto Oscuro” is “Suite 1922” by Paul Hindemith, of all 20th-century composers the one whose language hewed most closely to Bach’s. The suite takes a series of popular and jazz dances and refracts them through the lens of Hindemith's uniquely acidic counterpoint. The result is a delightful if slightly bizarre hybrid that reminds one just how freely experimental the early part of the century was. Siloti’s arrangement of the B-minor Prelude from the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier closes the program, and like everything here, it’s played with such opulent tone and remarkable fluidity by Gourari as to belie the true difficulty of almost all the music here.

DAVID WEININGER

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