Handel: Samson

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Carus
WORKS: Samson
PERFORMER: Thomas Cooley, Sophie Daneman, Franziska Gottwald, William Berger, Wolf Matthias Friedrich, Michael Slattery; Göttingen Festival Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
CATALOGUE NO: 83.425

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Handel’s English oratorios, though unstaged, generally remain vividly theatrical. Samson is less operatic, opening with the hero already defeated, blinded and in chains, long after Dalila’s seduction and subsequent treachery. 

The drama is of the mind rather than of action, with virtually no incidents in Act I, and Act II limited to
two encounters, Dalila offering remorse and the giant Harapha mocking the captive.

Nicholas McGegan’s approach focuses on this depiction of states of mind and emotions. Tempos are reflective rather than animated, while instrumental expression and phrasing is strikingly subtle. Of his soloists, Thomas Cooley makes a tragic Samson, from his first soliloquy on his mental anguish, through a heart-rending ‘Total eclipse’ to his humility and returning strength in Act III.

Among many high points is the ‘Scena’ opening Act II, Micah’s ‘Return O God of Hosts’ with deeply sensitive orchestral support, the astonishingly unpredictable tonality of the middle section, the chorus joining in the da capo repeat. Sophie Daneman is a convincing Dalila, though every sustained note acquires a rather prominent vibrato.

Doubling as ‘An Israelite woman’ in Act III, her fast passage-work in ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ is thrilling. Other characters are no less strong, Wolf Matthias Friedrich a mighty, arrogant Harapha, and William Berger, as Samson’s father Manoa, a tragic onlooker.

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Nicholas McGegan’s chorus numbers almost 50, large by today’s fashion, but transparent and characterful in its roles as Israelites and Philistines. The SACD recording retains crystal clarity in the dangerously reverberant acoustic of Dresden’s Frauenkirche. George Pratt