Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Samson @ St George’s, Hanover Square, London

13 October 2021

Twelve years after performing it at the Albert Hall, Harry Bicket and The English Concert present one of Handel’s most outstanding oratorios once more.

St George's, Hanover Square

St George’s, Hanover Square (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Although hardly a rarity, Handel’s Samson HWV 57, with a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton and performed here in its 1743 version, does not appear with anywhere near the frequency we might expect. The last performance I can recall in London was at the BBC Proms in 2009, by exactly the same ensemble and conductor as now, although apparently the English Baroque Choir presented it more recently in St John’s, Smith Square. 

Why this should be so is not clear because it is widely acclaimed to be one of his greatest oratorios, and is the type of piece that one listens to and instantly thinks “it doesn’t get better than this”. Handel’s use of music to aid characterisation is notable, even by his own high standards, with Dalila’s seductive aria featuring alluring violins, Harapha’s music carrying a swagger, and the solemn gravity of the Israelites’ proclamations contrasting with the hedonistic, carefree Philistine choruses.

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. As such, it feels like 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.

This performance from The English Concert, conducted from the harpsichord by Harry Bicket, featured no separate chorus, but instead saw all of the principals, except Samson, perform (alongside three additional singers) the Israelites and Philistines’ music. This choice, however, was not dictated by budgetary constraints or potential social distancing issues, but rather the latest research that suggests this is how it would have first been presented in 1743.

“…the type of piece that one listens to and instantly thinks “it doesn’t get better than this””

The English Concert’s playing was extremely accomplished with the same levels of precision, clarity and balance being achieved during the most full-blooded passages as in the simplest lines that typically rounded off an air. The performance by and large did not hold back on presenting an exuberant sound, as Handel surely intended, and this was one of the most striking features of the evening. It is one thing to draw out each line strongly when everything is played delicately. It is a far harder task to delineate them to perfection when everything is given more charge, which puts more emphasis on everyone playing out, and yet this is exactly what the ensemble achieved. A similar point could be made about the chorus singing where the blend across the nine singers was nigh on perfect, even as every line could clearly be heard. Though most voice parts stood next to each other, it proved a masterstroke to ‘bracket’ the sound by placing the two basses at either end of the line.   

The soloists were very strong, with Rachel Redmond producing a clear and bright sound as the Israelite Woman, and Gwilym Bowen demonstrating similar clarity and purity in several tenor roles. Matthew Brook combined basic strength with real nuance in his bass-baritone to present a compelling Manoah while, as Micah, Paula Murrihy revealed a beautiful, brilliantly controlled and impeccably phrased sound.

The one element that detracted from the overall experience was the placing of the performers. Because the principals also formed the chorus, it meant that, with the exception of Samson, they stood behind the orchestra for their solo parts. This is because in the relatively small venue of St George’s, Hanover Square, the entire chorus could not be put in front of the players, while soloists could not easily come to the front just to sing their specific parts. As a result, however, there were many occasions when characters simply sang over the orchestra to Samson which, though it may sound a small thing, affected the impact of their exchanges to a notable degree. Samson rests to a large extent on one-to-one encounters, and the difference between Micah or Manoah coming into his presence, with the grief visibly showing on their faces as they see the state he is in, and simply singing to him across other people is quite profound.

In Act II Samson has longer encounters with Dalila and Harapha and these two characters were brought to the front to be with him. However, by the time we had seen each squeeze down a side aisle and then past a camera the impact of them bursting onto the scene felt somewhat marred. Neither encounter could have been described as lacking in energy, but the brand of charge to be found in both did not quite hit the mark. This is certainly not, however, attributable to the performances of Sophie Bevan, whose voice as Dalila was well rounded and extremely sumptuous, or David Shipley, whose bass as Harapha was as rousing as it was secure.

At the centre of the evening stood Stuart Jackson as Samson, whose ability to communicate an aria proved spellbinding. His delivery of ‘Total eclipse!’ encapsulated all that was good about his performance by combining vocal dexterity with emotional appeal as he moved between conveying the most fragile grief and thunderous despair, while very much providing his own embellishments to the piece.   

This performance was part of the 2021 London Handel Festival, which concludes with the International Handel Singing Competition Final at 19.00 on 20 October at St George’s, Hanover Square.

This performance was recorded for streaming from 20 November.

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