Samson and Delilah (excerpts)
Eugene Onegin Tatianas Letter Scene
Delilah Risë Stevens
Samson Jan Peerce
High Priest Robert Merrill
Robert Shaw Chorale
NBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in New York, between 7 and 14 November 1954
Tatiana Licia Albanese
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in New York, 6 February 1951
Reviewed by: Tim Ashley
Reviewed: June 2005
CD No: CALA CACD0540
Duration: 77 minutes
The bulk of this disc consists of the extracts from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson and Delilah” that Leopold Stokowski recorded for RCA Victor in 1954. An air of mystery, to some extent, hangs over theperformance, due to the fact that we know precious little about itsbackground. Stokowski’s forays into opera were always special, yet at the same time few and far between. He is not known to have had any notable affinity with Saint-Saëns’s masterpiece, and the reasons for his decision to record sizeable chunks of it remain unknown.
As with much of Stokowski’s work, the performance is at once wonderful and annoying: wonderful because the bulk of it is so good, you just wish he’d recorded the whole thing; annoying because the choice of extracts is curious, and doesn’t quite give an accurate reflection of ‘Samson’ in its entirety. Broadly speaking, Stokowski gravitates towards the three main protagonists rather than concentrating on the great choral outpourings that steer the work into complex structural territory midway between opera and oratorio. His considerations may have been practical: he has a superb cast, though the Robert Shaw Chorale, for all its commitment occasionally sounds too few in numbers. The omission of too many of the choruses, above all thecontrapuntal, Bach-like utterances of the Hebrews, remains something of a drawback, particularly since the balance between sensuality and austerity, crucial to the score’s impact, is detrimentally affected.
There are also some awkward cuts in the chosen extracts themselves. For example, Samson’s “Vois ma misère” jumps awkwardly over Abimelech’s shockingly intrusive couplets. Delilah’s “Printemps qui commence” lacks the voices of Samson and the High Priest that twine querulously round the mezzo’s seductive tones. A colossal chunk is missing from the Act Two love-duet. Stokowski’s detractors would doubtless cite thecuts as typical of his much-vaunted need to ‘tinker’ with scores, though it must be pointed out here that many extract discs of the time follow comparable procedures, and that Stokowski’s approach is in no way unusual.
What we have, however, is in many respects remarkable. It’s conducted at white heat, played to perfection and for the most part greatly sung. The performance exudes a combination of tangible eroticism and virtuoso precision, as one sensual texture gives way to another. The swirling whole-tone scales that thread their way through much of the fabric of Act Two are riddled with sexual menace and unease. The ‘Bacchanale’, far from beingtreated merely as a ritzy orchestral showpiece, attains an orgiasticintensity that is at times frightening. The playing, not least seductive woodwind solos and lush strings, is at once opulent and brilliant, without ever being overtly extravagant for a second.
Stokowski’s triad of soloists is equally impressive. As Samson, Jan Peerce, all thrilling top notes and passionate phrasing, swivels between fanaticism and desire with such vividness that it is something of a shock to learn that he never sang the role on stage. Risë Stevens was slightly past her considerable best when the recording was made, and there is at times pressure at the top of the voice – there’s a very awkwardly placed high B flat in the first of her Act Two arias – though she’s a superb artist and her Delilah is at once seductive, manipulative and absolutely lethal.As the High Priest, Robert Merrill faces her with understandable wariness, and you can’t help but wonder whether he is sexually drawn to her himself.
The whole thing is tremendously impressive, and its reappearance, beautifully re-mastered, is an important addition to the ‘Samson’ discography.
Stokowski’s performance of the “Letter Scene” from Tchaikosvky’s “Eugene Onegin” was recorded for RCA Victor in 1951 and originally issued on LP with Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilerias No.5. The Tchaikovsky extract caused controversy in its day, largely thanks to comparisons with a rival Columbia issue, recorded in London in 1948, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Walter Susskind with Ljuba Welitsch as Tatiana. Roughly speaking, the arguments voiced at the time still hold true today. Stokowski’s version, wonderfully supple and restrained, is better conducted. Welitsch, occasionally hectored by Susskind, however, is by far the greater singer. Stokowski has the veteran Licia Albanese, an affecting artist, though she sounds far toomature. Albanese sings in Russian, Welitsch in German (which will alarm purists).
If your main interest is ‘Onegin’, you can take your pick. TheSamson extracts, however, are essential listening for every admirer of the work, and genuinely unmissable.