This is one of Handel’s great works but one he apparently struggled with for many months. Ruth Smith, in a wonderful introductory essay to this recording, notes that the many changes evident in the manuscript testify to the difficult birth of this oratorio. Of interest is a cut aria in which Jonathan sings of his friend David’s charms. But even in the extant version there is enough implied about this famous biblical friendship with Jonathan praising the god-like David and calling him thou darling of my soul. This is a work full of poignant arias, great choruses and magnificent orchestration. And Paul McCreesh brings out much of this glory in this recording. He leads his Gabrieli Consort and Players in beautifully crisp, thoughtful ensemble playing. His tempo is easygoing, at times a little too slow for my liking, and although I admire the strength of his interpretation I did at times wish for a little more spring in his step. There are many great moments but for me these discs are all about the extraordinary Andreas Scholl whose David is the heart of this performance. He is matched by the fine voice of Mark Padmore as Jonathan and the delightful Nancy Argenta as his other (hetero) love-interest Michal. Argenta and Scholl’s brief duet in Act Two is truly magical. Scholl is brilliant throughout but he is outstanding in the aria O Lord, whose mercies numberless, an emotional prayer of entreaty for Saul who is jealous and enraged by David’s popularity. This is as good as anything that I have heard Scholl perform: vocally and dramatically illuminated by Scholl’s unique ability to mix absolute interiority with splendid projection.

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