~ HWV 57 ~
Recorded in 1996 /
Previously released on Collins Classics /
Reissued in 2002
Samson: Thomas Randle, tenor
Israelite man, Philistine man: Mark Padmore, tenor
Dalila: Lynda Russell, soprano
Israelite woman, Philistine woman, Virgin: Lynne Dawson, soprano
Micah: Catherine Wyn-Rogers, alto
Messenger: Matthew Vine, tenor
Manoa: Michael George, bass
Harapha: Jonathan Best, bass
The Symphony of Harmony and Invention (on period instruments)
Harry Christophers, conductor
Arguably Handel’s finest creation, Samson is here recorded ‘complete’. We are given a hitherto unheard choral 4-bar sequel to “Let the bright Seraphim” and Micah’s strange ‘cantata’ beginning “Then long Eternity”, and also his “It is not Virtue” with its jarring misogyny. It is good to be able to judge these items for one’s self, rather than know them from the score alone. Milton’s grim closet drama, Samson Agonistes, along with others of the poet’s major works, was prized for its Christianisation of classical epic (eighteenth-century protagonists overlooked his fierce republicanism). Newburgh Hamilton, Handel’s librettist, produced a thoroughly viable drama from Milton’s materials, one that became better known in the later eighteenth century than the original. His interpolation of excerpts from other poems by Milton enriched the overall effect: whereas Milton ended with the consolatory phrase “calm of Mind all Passion spent” Hamilton closed the drama with a gloriously redemptive “blaze of Light”. A good performance must convey the emotional exhaustion of anguish and reproach, the giddy preoccupation of heathens, and affirm the ardent hope offered by Christianity.
The overture’s mood of Philistine sensualism is splendidly captured. Samson presents the performers and listeners with many opportunities to contrast the brash panache of Philistine shouts of joy and heathen dancing (and what relish Christophers brings to this music!) with the melancholy brooding of Samson and Micah’s patient coaxing of the imprisoned hero out of his obsessive bouts of self-pity. Unhappily in Part 1 of this Samson, which is perhaps its greatest flaw, the Israelite music could have done with more bite. For instance, a theorbo continuo softens Samson’s despair, which Randle renders polite rather than embittered. While the words and music make Samson complain about himself, his friends, even God, Tom Randle, though singing well enough in the first Part, does not protest vehemently enough. “Total Eclipse” is played and sung in a manner suggesting a gentler psychology than Hamilton and Handel intended. The Sixteen, however, excels in “O first created Beam” with an understated intensity, each line of entry clearly delineated - a feature of all their numbers. In the otherwise anonymous role of Israelite man, Mark Padmore’s strong personality bursts through when singing of reputation as a bubble in “God of our Fathers”. Michael George’s Manoa has a dignity which confirms that Randle’s Samson comes from heroic stock.
In Part 2 things perk up. The finely-caught wily insinuations of Lynda Russell’s Dalila spurs Randle into a belatedly venomous performance of his recitatives (e.g. “Ne’er think of that”); the latter’s rueful regrets as he accepts responsibility for the cause of his humiliation at her hands charges “Your Charms to Ruin” with a noble authority. Their duet “Traitor to Love” is a suitably fiery example of the lack of domestic bliss that once existed between them. It is a pity that the Virgins and Dalila were not separated stereophonically; on this recording the Virgins merely echo when they should help to confuse the blind hero over who is petitioning him. The interchange in recitative, air, and duet, between Jonathan Best as the braggart Harapha and a newly-defiant Randle glows with excitement, and is perhaps the highlight of the recording: “baffled Coward” is spat out. The Sixteen gives a lucid clarity to the piety of “Hear us, O God” with its old-fashioned polyphony (borrowed from the lament from the conclusion of Carissimi’s Jephte). Bernard Shaw claimed that the chorus “Fix’d in his everlasting Seat” should “strike the atheist dumb”, but here it is too tamely performed for that - perhaps Christophers’s band is insufficient in numbers to provide Handel’s stylishly assertive music with appropriate power.
Part 3 goes well throughout. The great lament is consummately done, the whole performance coming together with considerable grandeur. Lynne Dawson’s unaccompanied solos, “The Virgins too” and “May ev’ry Hero”, are admirably articulated. Padmore’s Philistine man is splendidly vacuous, while George’s “How willing my paternal Love” is a gem of heartfelt sensibility.
Singers’ cadences are thankfully brief, and it is a relief to hear all airs end on the note that Handel specified. Decoration is generally judicious because it is sparing, though Dawson goes astray in “Let the bright Seraphim”. All tempi are nicely judged, and there are no glutinous rallentandos. A first rank performance of Samson observes the incremental tension that Handel and Hamilton wrote into the great scenas across all three Parts. Christophers takes a traditional oratorio approach, carefully pausing between most movements, enough to prevent the essential sense of rising drama in Parts 1 and 2. But this recording is unlikely to be surpassed easily, and is most warmly recommended.
© Les Robarts - July 2002
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