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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Samson (1743 version)
Samson - Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
Micah - Jess Dandy (alto)
Manoa - Matthew Brook (bass)
Harapha - Vitali Rozynko (bass)
Dalila - Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Israelite/Philistine/Messeger - Hugo Hymas (tenor)
Virgin/Israelite Woman/Philistine Woman - Mary Bevan (soprano)
Virgin/Philistine Woman - Fflur Wyn (soprano)
Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Dunedin Consort/John Butt (harpsichord)
rec. 2018, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London LINN CKD599 [3 CDs: 204:14]
John Butt and his Dunedin forces offer here Handel’s first performed version of Samson from 1743. It was so successful that it was performed many times in Handel’s life and after. In fact it is the only Handel oratorio whose reputation has stood high from that premiere to now. But its first audience found it too long, and subsequent performances were usually cut – a practice that began even in its first run of eight performances (an unprecedented number). The first of its three acts suffered most, but this Dunedin recording gives us the whole original text of that act and of the rest. The first act does outstay its welcome somewhat, with its many recitatives, and some less than compelling arias. But why not record it all, and let your remote control do the editing (every item has its own track), if that is not too heretical? We can pardon such barbarity with the thought that the composer did it first.
But it is not the edition that is so unusual (The Sixteen’s excellent 1997 recording has much the same 1734 text), but the personnel for the choruses. They are sung by a group comprising the eight soloists listed above (plus an extra alto) doubled by a group of other singers, notably boy trebles contributing to the soprano line. That is what you hear on the CDs. But Butt recorded each chorus twice, and a version using only the soloists – a line-up Handel also used - is available digitally. That has more clarity perhaps, but the larger group brings more weight of tone (and such is the choral discipline, you don’t lose much in terms of clarity anyway). John Butt writes about this and other textual and historical performance matters in the booklet, which also has an excellent note by Ruth Smith, a great authority on the oratorios.
The cast is a very good one, with several prominent Handelians led by Joshua Ellicott’s sensitive portrayal of Samson. His Act one aria lamenting his blindness, “Total eclipse”, brings for us echoes of the blindness which overtook both Milton, whose Samson Agonistes is the original source of the libretto, and Handel himself. Ellicot offers great pathos here, as well as a touching penitence when signing of his “shameful garrulity”. The Act Three aria “Thus when the sun from’s wat’ry bed” lies in the most attractive apart of the voice, the upper reaches of which are a bit constricted in tone, sometimes close to a whine. Thomas Randle’s more virile and open sound for Harry Christophers has more of Samson in it, reduced in strength though the character may now be.
Jess Dandy has a rich contralto ideal for Handel, so that even her recitatives announce her qualities, and in Micah’s great Act Two aria “Return, O God of hosts!” she sings with nobility of line and tone. Of the two basses here, Matthew Brook’s superb Manoa makes a more satisfyingly sonorous impression than Vitali Rozynko’s Harapha, whose music is a bit better sung by Jonathan Best with the Sixteen. Sophie Bevan’s lightly frivolous Dalila is captured in the neat Scotch snaps of “To fleeting pleasure make your court”, while sister Mary brings bright tone, good diction, and a lift to the rhythm in the hit final number “Let the bright seraphim.” Lynne Dawson for Christophers was vocally better still, more at ease with the leaps and the upper range generally. But the sonority and clarity of chorus and orchestra in this finale are more successful from the Dunedin group under Butt’s more sprightly direction. Tenor Hugo Hymas and soprano Fflur Wyn provide strong support in smaller parts, both destined on this evidence increasingly to lead Handel oratorio ensembles.
The Linn is on three stereo CDs, one per act, but formerly a prestigious Dunedin release like this would have been on SACD in surround sound. (The download with smaller chorus however does have studio master options). For whatever reasons, there seems to be at least a partial industry retreat from high resolution on physical carriers. Fortunately the stereo sound is very fine, the acoustic ideal – the recording was made in the same Hampstead church Christophers used twenty-two years before. If you have invested in a good SACD player and a 5.1 speaker set-up, there is an SACD Samson, from Nicholas McGeagan live in Dresden (on Carus, from 2009). That is a strong (live) performance too, but ironically enough the sound is compromised by Dresden’s Frauenkirche setting, which has rather distant soloists and slightly too reverberant an acoustic.
Overall I retain a preference for the recording by the Sixteen, for some stronger vocal performances, that of Samson in particular. But Butt still has a good Samson and a very even and satisfying team all round, while his choral sound and musical direction are delightfully invigorating. One last textual point – Christophers includes the Dead March (a version of that in Saul), which was used in later performances by Handel but not presumably in 1743 – hence Butt omits it, even though the text following that place in the score is “The body comes”. Thus scholarship can sometimes descend to the doctrinaire. So the Harry Christophers version does not suffer total eclipse, but we now have another superb recording to place alongside it.