BBC Proms reviews

Prom 50 review – a performance of Handel’s Samson to draw the listener in

23 August 2023

The Academy of Ancient Music and Philharmonia Chorus make the Albert Hall feel like the most intimate of spaces.

Prom 50

Prom 50 (Photo: Sisi Burn)

Handel’s Samson HWV 57 may not enjoy as many outings as one might imagine, considering it is acclaimed as one of his greatest oratorios, but the BBC Proms does hold it in high regard. While the first complete performance of the work only came in 2002, this presentation by the Academy of Ancient Music constituted the third time it had been heard at the festival in the 21st century. All three have been superb, but the AAM produced something quite different from either The Sixteen in 2002 or The English Concert in 2009, by virtue of just how much attention it paid to micromanaging the sound at every point.

With a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton, the story is based on Milton’s Samson Agonistes, published in 1671. This was known as a closet drama in that it was intended to be read in one’s study rather than staged. It therefore stands to reason that it should be the perfect vehicle for an oratorio, where once again the action is left to the recipient’s imagination. In laying so much emphasis on Samson’s interactions with a series of characters in turn, Handel’s creation could be seen as distilling the form down to its most simple and pure.

The evening utilised the edition created for some of the later performances during the oratorio’s initial run in 1743, with revisions and cuts making it shorter than when it premiered on 18 February. At its heart stood the Samson of Allan Clayton, whose approach seemed totally in line with that of Laurence Cummings, who conducted from one of two harpsichords, and the AAM. His performance of the iconic ‘Total eclipse!’ epitomised his ability to shape each sound to perfection so that the air was possessed of infinite contrasts, which together made for a brilliantly controlled and coherent whole. In the first line, the relatively broad sound on ‘sun’ contrasted with an extremely hushed ‘moon’, before the second line grew ever more expansive, although never to a point where it ceased to feel highly sensitive. The later repetition of the first line saw the words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ each expressed slightly differently, but the same degree of difference between the two was maintained, and this time the utterance of ‘moon’ was also planned to contrast starkly with the flourishing ‘noon’ that followed.

“…this presentation… constituted the third time it had been heard at the festival in the 21st century”

Prom 50

Allan Clayton (Photo: Sisi Burn)

The AAM for its part produced lines that ostensibly felt a little clipped, but only because its rhythmic awareness was so strong. Any sense of sweep existed more within each phase rather than across them, and again this produced a sound that was beautifully balanced and precise, and which worked as one with Clayton. Particularly impressive was the relentless brushing effect that underscored Clayton’s penultimate phrase, and captured the right sense of forward momentum without ever pushing things to extremes. The result was that both soloist and orchestra drew us in to such an extent that the gargantuan Royal Albert Hall suddenly felt like the most intimate of spaces. 

Jacquelyn Stucker was both a formidable and seductive Dalila, who really did feel like the ultimate temptress because one could see how easy it would have been to have trusted her, in spite of what she had done. Right until the end of her encounter with Samson, she maintained both sides to her character by shooting the most devastating glance at Micah on her exit before flashing the broadest of smiles. ‘My faith and truth, oh Samson, prove’ was especially well sung as Stucker’s nuanced soprano was complemented perfectly by the slightly lighter sound of Joélle Harvey’s Philistine Woman to create exactly the right ‘echo’ effect. Harvey also excelled as the Israelite Woman in the final ‘Let the bright Seraphim in burning row’.       

Brindley Sherratt was luxury casting as Harapha as he rolled the character’s deep bass sounds to brilliant effect. Jess Dandy was a highly accomplished Micah, producing a richer and darker sound than we might be used to hearing in the part, but one that worked extremely well. Jonathan Lemalu also revealed his strong and secure bass-baritone as he played the concerned father Manoa. Will Pate executed the small role of the Messenger well, which is not easy when it can be made to feel inappropriately comical. In telling Manoa and Micah that he has news that is too sad for human ears before simply shouting ‘Samson is dead’, the Messenger can appear to possess the same level of tact as David Brent, but it is a trap that Pate successfully avoided. The Philharmonia Chorus, under chorus master Gavin Carr, was on wondrous form, whether capturing the solemn gravity of the Israelites’ proclamations, or the carefree, hedonistic feel of many of the Philistine choruses.

For the majority of the time, the Israelite soloists sang in front of the orchestra to the conductor’s left, and the Philistines to the right. However, in an effort to keep Samson, the most constantly present character, in the same place while others came and went, Clayton stood on the extreme left of the stage. The consequence was that he felt rather huddled in a corner, and a far larger distance away from many audience members than he needed to be. The fact that Clayton’s entire performance was geared towards drawing us in meant that what could have been a major problem only amounted to a minor niggle, but it still placed an unnecessary check on just how impactful the evening could be. Nevertheless, when the orchestra, chorus and soloists all demonstrated such skills and commitment from start to finish, the performance was undoubtedly a special one.

Prom 50 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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