A true highlight of this year's London Handel Festival was a performance of the dramatic oratorio Saul, featuring a large cast of young soloists, including several previous finalists of the Festival's annual singing competition, all now getting well established in their solo careers.

© Marco Borggreve
© Marco Borggreve

Ruth Smith's erudite programme notes explained that its writing marked Handel's recovery from a lengthy and debilitating illness which had left him unable to play. The complex plot tracks the contrasts between the virtuous, loyal David and the lawless and vengeful Saul who eventually turns on both his son Jonathan, and David. Requiring comparatively large forces, by oratorio standards, both vocal and instrumental including 3 trombones, it is seldom performed.

This was the first major work by Handel which featured a bass male lead, Saul, sung by the young modern-day Viking, Njål Sparbo, whose rich tones filled the Church with threatening menace and provided an unusual contrast with the more familiar Handelian tenor of his son Jonathan, sung by Nicholas Mulroy, who started a little quietly but soon warmed to his part. The roles of Saul's daughters, Merab and Michal, were taken respectively by Lucy Crowe and Sophie Junker, the latter fresh from her first prize at the Handel Singing Competition only last year and who made a very charming Michal.

But as ever, the real star quality came from Iestyn Davies, whose first air O King, your favours with delight I take lit up the Church with anticipation. The pace of the famous O Lord, whose mercies numberless was perhaps a shade too fast for Mr Davies to do it full justice, but on the other hand, it might well have interrupted the dramatic flow to break with the quite lively rhythm established from the beginning. And indeed it worked in his favour with a storming Such haughty beauties. There were one or two very brief hesitant moments (by his stellar standards), but they were as nothing to the beautifully phrased recitative and exquisite arias which were delivered with strength and composure - it was easy to imagine this David facing up to Goliath - and there was a delightful, touching duet with Michal. James Bowman, spotted in the audience and whose valedictory recital takes place in the Wigmore Hall in May, must surely feel that his legacy is in safe hands. Yet oddly enough, one of Iestyn Davies's most unforgettable contributions involved him doing nothing at all when, during the Dead March symphony mourning the death of Saul and his son, David's friend, Jonathan, he just stood, perfectly still, looking down, lending a mesmerising and dramatic intensity to this heart-wrenching moment.

The London Handel Orchestra, complete with harp, flutes, oboes, trombones, timpani and organ, with Laurence Cummings conducting from the harpsichord, showed beautifully the richness of Handel's orchestration and the excellent cast was completed by the London Handel Singers from whose ranks were drawn several of the smaller solo parts, all very well sung.

The newly-restored St George's Hanover Square provided a perfect setting for this magnificent oratorio and everyone involved rose to the occasion to make it a richly rewarding evening, particularly for those of us hearing it performed live for the first time.