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PROMS 2002

PROM 66: Handel, ‘Samson.’ The Sixteen / Symphony of Harmony and Invention / Harry Christophers. Sunday September 8th (ME).

 

Surprisingly, this was the first full performance of this work at the Proms, only individual numbers such as the well – known ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ having been heard in past years. Handel’s setting of Milton’s great poem ‘Samson Agonistes’ was written just after ‘Messiah’ and was as popular as that work in its time, but its star has since waned compared to the brightness of some of the composer’s other works, and one can see why. ‘Samson’ is an exciting story, but the narrative has its longeurs, and vocally it is exceptionally demanding. This performance did not quite make the case for its being heard as often as, say, ‘Jephtha,’ but it did give intense pleasure for much of the long evening.

Samson is one of the most demanding of Handel’s heroic roles, and it needs singing of great spiritedness, agility, tenderness and confident projection. Tom Randle certainly gave us some of these; he is not the world’s greatest Handel tenor, by any means – his tone is rather rough at times, his passagework is not always neatly articulated, and he sometimes sings so quietly that you simply cannot hear him, but he makes up for these with his arresting stage presence, his total commitment to the music and drama of the work, and his forceful presentation of the character throughout all the moods of the piece, from the aching sadness of ‘Total eclipse! No sun, no moon,’ to the confidence of ‘Let but that spirit.’ His ‘Why does the God of Israel sleep?’ was characteristic of his performance in that he compensated for the lack of freedom at the top of his voice with his sense of heroism and strength.

John Tomlinson’s Harapha was an equally powerful characterization, so much so that he looked as if he might be about to take off during ‘Presuming Slave,’ and his wonderfully warm, beautifully focused bass was a joy to hear in this music. It was sad that Michael George was not permitted any repeats in ‘How willing my paternal love,’ since he sang this wonderful aria with all the style, power and tenderness which we have come to expect from him. Catherine Wyn- Rogers was a convincing, highly dramatic Micah, even though there were times when her tone was not as full as it generally is, and Lisa Milne’s Dalila was creamily sung and alluringly portrayed. I was less struck with Natasha Marsh’s Philistine / Israelite Woman; she is making her Proms debut and is young, but her voice seems to me, at least on this showing, rather too small and lacking in individuality of timbre.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (actually twenty five, on this occasion) gave highly charged, sharply defined renditions of the choruses, especially in ‘Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound’ (superb playing from Robert Farley and Christopher Pigram) and the difficult ‘Hear us, our god’ where the perfect balance was struck between dramatic import and clarity of sound. The Symphony of Harmony and Invention showed that you don’t need to be the Concertgebouw in order to fill the Albert Hall with sound; the continuo was consistently fluent and beautifully shaped, the strings produced angular or melting sounds as needed, and the woodwind, particularly the bassoons, were a joy throughout, in contrast to the rather tentative experience one sometimes encounters with ‘period’ instruments in this repertoire. The work was enthusiastically received by a house that was well filled for a not – especially well loved piece: next year, ‘Jephtha’ or at least ‘Joshua,’ please.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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