London Handel Festival – Samson – The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket

Samson, HWV57 – Oratorio in three acts to a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton after John Milton’s Samson Agonistes

Samson – Stuart Jackson
Dalila – Sophie Bevan
Micah – Paula Murrihy
Manoah – Matthew Brook
Harapha – David Shipley
Israelite Man / Philistine Man / Messenger – Gwilym Bowen
Israelite Woman / Philistine Woman – Rachel Redmond

The English Concert
Harry Bicket (harpsichord & director)

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 13 October, 2021
Venue: St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London

Samson was the oratorio which Handel composed immediately after Messiah in 1741, and by setting a text adapted from John Milton – regarded then as the greatest poet in the English language – he was on to a sure winner. As with many of the oratorios, Handel’s mainly Protestant audience would have identified with the Israelites, beset in this episode from The Bible by the Philistines, who have already reduced the once great hero Samson to a blind, incapacitated wreck. At the work’s opening he is bound in chains, and his fate is bewailed both by himself and his fellow Israelites, before suffering further indignities at the hands of Harapha, and his estranged wife Dalila, who infamously cut off his hair (and therefore source of strength).

Despite the comparative lack of action in this oratorio, and its generally internalised, psychological drama, somewhat like a Greek tragedy, it received a notably urgent and impulsive reading here by The English Concert under Harry Bicket, beginning with the boisterous Overture. In quite a long composition, that generated a necessary dynamic course through the music, and an arresting sense of the Israelites’ frustrations and fears. It perhaps became heavy-handed and unremitting in Act One, but it suitably ratcheted up the tension in the Second in Samson’s altercations, first with Dalila, then Harapha, culminating in the rollicking chorus at the conclusion of that Act, where the confrontation has escalated from the personal level to that between the Israelites and Philistines at large.

The chorus comprised only the soloists and an additional tenor, on the basis of apparent evidence that these were the sort of modest resources which Handel had at his disposal at the oratorio’s premiere in 1743. In the context of the fairly small space of St George’s, Hanover Square, the choral sound was bold and solid enough, but without more voices it was not possible to distinguish so much between the different characters of the two opposing peoples, which Handel skilfully delineates, bringing to bear on his score all his experience of operatic dramatisation.

Stuart Jackson gave a sympathetic account of the title role through an expressively direct approach, with clearly enunciated words, rather than being histrionic or melodramatic. His ‘Total eclipse’, for example, elicited purposeful torment, not wallowing self-pity. Matthew Brook was a compassionate Manoah, Samson’s father, with his warm delivery of the music, perhaps a touch dry, but providing solace in passages where the Israelite hero is not being goaded on or encouraged by other characters. By contrast David Shipley exuded a more menacing, though controlled vocal power as Harapha.

Paula Murrihy’s Micah was vociferous and eloquent, to the extent that it seemed sometimes as though she were haranguing Samson, rather than comforting or supporting him as the character’s friend, but there was no question as to Murrihy’s agile technique which provided much musical pleasure in this performance. Sophie Bevan brought no particular affectation to her realisation of Dalila initially – a deliberate strategy as she first urged forgiveness, with apparent sincerity, but more fiery and colourful remonstrations came later from Bevan as her character was rebuffed by Samson. Gwilym Bowen offered cheery vigour in the roles of the Philistine and Israelite Men, complimented by the alluring charm of Rachel Redmond’s Philistine Woman. It was she also who took probably the work’s most famous number, ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ as the Israelite Woman, which she rendered with stately enthusiasm before the rousing concluding chorus brought this bracing performance to an emphatic end.

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