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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Samson - oratorio in three acts HWV 57 (1742) [167:12]
Samson - Thomas Cooley (tenor)
Dalila, Philistine woman and Israelite woman - Sophie Daneman (soprano)
Micah - Franziska Gottwald (alto)
Manoa - William Berger (bass)
Harapha - Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass)
Philistine and Israelite - Michael Slattery (tenor)
NDR Choir/Festspiel Orchester Göttingen/Nicholas McGegan
rec. live, Frauenkirche, Dresden, June 2008
CARUS 83.425 [3 CDs: 60:09 + 57:46 + 49:17]
Experience Classicsonline

Carus is building a valuable stable of recordings, many taped in the Frauenkirche in Dresden. For this three CD set the NDR Choir, Festspiel Orchester Göttingen, a sextet of solo singers and Nicholas McGegan have been enlisted to render Samson to the disc-buying public. The result, if I can anticipate my own critical comments, is an equable and well, but small scaled, performance. There are no outstanding singers as such; instead ensemble virtues are promoted in pursuance of a harmonious and expressively equable reading of the score.

One of the most striking things about the set is the excellent diction and spirited incision of the NDR Chorus. The relatively new Festspiel Orchester Göttingen employs period instruments and, as with almost all bands promoted by Carus that I have encountered, are a most adept, rhythmically buoyant and sympathetic one. McGegan directs with style and if one sometimes feels him a little lacking in brio - I tend to feel the same way about his compatriot Robert King in this sort of repertoire - then compensation comes in the shape of his long-term control and of the rise and fall of the work's emotive high ground. Recitative is notably well judged, accompanied recitative especially, where the band points finely, and these are the result of McGegan's acumen.

But Samson is about the voice and here we have some matters to ponder. The singers have been well selected to ensure that warmth and a certain limited expressive range is harmoniously maintained - which is not to say there aren't some outbursts, of which more in a moment. It is all too easy, when this work is staged or semi-staged, as it has been, to allow Samson's gravitational pull to splinter ensemble focus. I saw John Vickers's last performances on a London stage, when he sang Samson, and though this wasn't quite the case here, it was obvious where all eyes and ears were directed. In this Carus things are, for want of a better phrase, democratically apportioned.

Franziska Gottwald is a sonorous but not over inflated Micah - she sings with equalized tone and requisite plangency, as well as fine English diction. It's a voice that can take on a pleasing keen, as in her Act II aria with chorus Return Oh God of Hosts. Thomas Cooley is Samson; he sings with pleasing, neatly controlled eloquence but it's rather small-scaled and arguably a bit neutral, something I felt about his Total Eclipse! which should be more starkly and incontrovertibly conveyed. William Berger has a warm, rounded bass and does well throughout; his recitative control is evident as early as Act I's Oh miserable change! where the band accompanies with spirited interjectory drama. His How willing my paternal love is sensitively graded, modest but not especially expressive. Sophie Daneman sings a pretty but perhaps subdued Let the Bright Seraphim but otherwise gives a controlled, pleasing account. Bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich sports some well nourished but incongruously employed open American vowels, not least in Honour and Arms which gets rather a 'windy' reading.

Who sings the Virgin in Act II, to shadow Daneman? I assume it's a member of the choir but she should be credited, especially as she's good.

The Raymond Leppard directed modern instrument performance is still going strong, and with Janet Baker, Helen Watts, Robert Tear, John Shirley-Quirk and Benjamin Luxon you're assured of first class singing of a certain stamp [Warner Classics 6 CDs 2564695686 - a box set with Messiah and assorted arias]. Harnoncourt [Teldec 2564692602] has pressing claims as does the old Richter with Alexander Young et al [Archiv 453 245 2]. Harry Christophers' 1996 recording with Lynne Dawson, Lynda Russell, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Mark Padmore, Matthew Vine, Thomas Randle, Jonathan Best and Michael George is ex-Collins and now on Coro 16008 and is the major opposition. I prefer the Christophers. 

Recorded over two days this is an SACD and sounds a touch reverberant in the tricky acoustic of the Frauenkirche. There are some small cuts, for example To Song and Dance. Whilst admiring the overall, equable nature of the performance, the Christophers gets a more urgent recommendation.

Jonathan Woolf



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