musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Samson, oratorio in 3 acts (HWV 57)

Sophie Daneman (Dalila, Israelitish Woman, Philistine Woman), soprano; Franziska Gottwald (Micah), contralto; Thomas Cooley (Samson), Michael Slattery (Israelite, Philistine), tenor; William Berger (Manoah), Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Harapha), bass
NDR Chor; FestspielOrchester Göttingen
Dir: Nicholas McGegan

rec: June 5 - 6, 2008 (live), Dresden, Frauenkirche
Carus - 83.425 (3 CDs) (© 2009) (2.47'12")

When Handel started to compose oratorios on English texts he didn't fundamentally change his style of composing. He himself called his oratorios 'sacred dramas', underlining what was most important to him. The most important difference between the operas and the oratorios was - apart from the language - that the latter weren't staged. Out went settings and costumes, in came the choir which had a crucial role both as participant in the dramatic development and in a commenting role.

Handel's oratorios were not equally appreciated, but Samson was very successful and after the first performance of 1743 Handel conducted several performances in the following years. He had composed the first version in 1741, immediately after finishing Messiah. The libretto by Newburgh Hamilton was based on John Milton's Samson Agonistes, which took its subject from the biblical book Judges. It concentrates on the last stage of Samson's life, when he is blinded by the Philistines. The most dramatic moments are when he meets Dalila, the Philistine woman who had turned him in to her people, and when Samson destroys the temple of the Philistines, making more victims in his last moments than during his whole life.

This is the recording of a live performance, and that means that some cuts are made, both in recitatives and arias. As such that is not a problem as Handel did the same when he performed this piece again after the first series of performances. At the same time it is a shame as not many performances of this oratorio are available on disc. Another disadvantage is the acoustics: the Frauenkirche in Dresden is hardly the most appropriate venue to record an oratorio by Handel. But the recording engineer has managed to limit the negative effects of the large reverberation of the church.

The title role is sung by Thomas Cooley, and he does so pretty well. The aria in the first act, 'Total eclipse', is beautifully sung as is 'Thus when the sun' in the third act. The most dramatic part of his role is the confrontation with Dalila, and he realises it convincingly. Sophie Daneman in the role of Dalila is much less impressive as her interpretation shows too little differentiation. She also sings the part of the Philistine Woman, and here I noted the same. The aria in Act 1, 'Ye men of Gaza', talks about a "cheerful song", but in her performance the aria doesn't sound very cheerful. Even more problematic is her singing from a stylistic point of view, in particular her continuous vibrato.

The vibrato also mars William Berger's singing, but his account of the role of Samson's father Manoah is alright. One of the main roles is Samson's friend Micah. I had perferred a more 'open' voice than Franziska Gottwald's, but she sings this role really well, and her diction and pronunciation are excellent, in particular considering she isn't a native English speaker. The beginning of the second act, when she sings the aria 'Return, Oh God of hosts', is one of the highlights of the performance.

Michael Slattery is one of the strenghts of the cast. I already noticed him in McGegan's recording of Solomon. Here he confirms his credentials as a fine Handel singer, for instance in the aria of the Israelite Man, 'God of our fathers' (Act 1). The only problem is that his low register is a bit too weak. That is not a problem for Wolf Matthias Friedrich, who gives an excellent account of the role of the Philistine Harapha. His pronunciation is a bit strange and different from that of the other soloists. But maybe this is deliberate, to underline the rudeness of his character.

The choir is giving remarkably good performances, and in general the choruses are among the best parts of this recording. 'Hear, Jacob's God, Jehovah' (Act 2) is just one example. The orchestra is also doing well, with a beautifully played overture, and an impressive 'Dead March' in Act 3. Excellent is the depiction of the content of Samson's aria 'Torments, alas' (Act 1). But there are also moments where I think it is a little subdued, for instance in the scene in Act 3, when Samson destroys the temple of the Philistines.

In the booklet the singer of the role of the Virgin in the duet of Dalila and the Virgin in act 2 (My faith and truth) is not mentioned. I assume it is a member of the choir. Michael Slattery also sings the role of the Messenger in Act 3 which is also not mentioned in the booklet. As I said there are some cuts, but the liner notes don't give any information about that. This kind of sloppiness is highly regrettable.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen

CD Reviews