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Handel's Samson

The actual reason I went up to Birmingham at the weekend was to attend a performance of Handel's oratorio, Samson at the Symphony Hall. In fact, it was a very Handel-intensive weekend. The time that wasn't spent at the concert was mainly spent copying endless CDs of Handel operas, borrowed from my Mum's friend Jean, in preparation for a course on them which I shall be attending next term in Oxford with redkitty23. And, since this very same Jean was actually in the concert, singing as she does in the soprano section of the City of Birmingham Bach choir, she was also able to sneak us in to spend Saturday afternoon watching the final rehearsal: orchestra, soloists and all.

The work itself: I hadn't in fact heard Samson before, either on CD or in performance, which of course made it all the more valuable to listen to the rehearsal in the afternoon. It tells the story of the end of Samson's life, after he's already had his hair cut off by Dalila (for thus is her name spelt in the libretto) and he's a slave amongst the Philistines.

Part I mainly sees him bemoaning his fate, while the Philistines prepare for a festival to their god, Dagon. Then Dalila shows up in Part II, to beg forgiveness of Samson and claim she still loves him - which he's having none of. She is followed by a warrior called Harapha, who's come to see if he can prove his mettle by fighting the great Samson. They enjoy a good session of testosterone-fuelled insult-flinging, each claiming that their respective god will prove who's the bigger man.

The music for the first two Parts is up to Handel's usual standard, with some great stirring choruses and a good emotional range in the arias. But the bit I really enjoyed was Part III. Here, the story picks up pace, and Handel rises to the challenge in fine form. Samson is taken off to the temple of the Philistines, where he does his famous demolition act. This is conveyed 'off-stage' via what is described in the libretto as 'a symphony of horror and confusion' - lots of fast strings in a sequence of falling passages - and then described in a messenger speech aria for clarity. Shortly afterwards, we're treated to a 'Dead March' - Samson's funeral lament, complete with trumpets and kettle-drums for maximum grandeur. And then the beautiful final aria, in which the soprano expresses Israel's joys at Samson's heroic act in duet with another trumpet, followed by a suitably rousing closing chorus.

On the whole, then, definitely one I'd listen to again, and generally very nicely set. But poor old Handel is famous for coming a cropper on occasion due to his less-than-perfect grasp of English, and there was a brilliant example of this in Part I which I must pause to note before I move on. Consider the following text:
"Then shall they know that He, whose Name
Jehovah, is alone
O'er all the earth, but One,
Was ever the Most High, and still the same."

The capitalisation makes it pretty clear which are the most important words, no? But how did Handel set the first line? So that the stresses fall:
"THEN shall THEY know THAT He, WHOSE Name..."

Why, Handel, why? What did you think you were doing? It doesn't sound good - and indeed nor, at this point, does the tune, which is pedestrian and uninteresting. Were you tired out after a hard day's throwing kettle-drums at people when you wrote this? Or did you perhaps give it to your cook to do - you know, the one whom you said was better at counterpoint than Gluck?

We wouldn't mind so much if you weren't such a genius the rest of the time.

The performance overall: I can't, of course, compare this weekend's performance with any others. But I can judge it on its own terms. The orchestra were generally flawless, with a nice rhythmic crispness and a generally fresh feel. But I'm afraid a dishonourable exception does have to be made for the two flautists, who were dreadful! Ragged, breathy, warbly, apparently unable to come in together. It's lucky they were only required for one movement, really.

The choir was strong too, on the whole. I've seen them many times, and they generally deliver the goods. But there was one point where the soprano section were interacting with Dalila (she begging Samson, "hear me!", and they reiterating, "hear her") and the naked exposure of their voices didn't come off to terribly great effect, especially by comparison with the soloist. There was a definite strain evident on the higher notes, and something of a breathiness, too. I suppose it is harder for twenty-odd people to achieve a clear, crisp sound together than it is for one. But I just felt a little more work needed to be done on that section. (And here I must apologise not only to the afore-mentioned Jean, but also to another of my Mum's friends, Noreen, who also sings in the same section. I know they're both excellent singers when heard solo).

The soloists: The soloists themselves were all extremely young - most of them only just out of various music academies, and at least one still studying. This gave a fresh and exciting feel to the performance, and the thrill of knowing you could be seeing a future great name at the start of their career. They threw themselves very much into the roles, 'acting' out the parts with body-language and expression, and were generally very much thrilled to be there. But, on the other hand, some of them perhaps needed a bit more experience before they were going to achieve their full potential.

Their individual write-ups are as follows:

Sophie Bevan (soprano: Dalila and other female parts) - generally very good. Clear, loud, expressive and confident in her handling of the parts. But there is a sort of 'warbling' tone some singers have that I really don't like. I'm not sure quite what it is, and it isn't just vibrato, but I think it is something that's at least partly cultivated, since I rarely hear it in pop singers. And I've also noticed that it tends to be more common amongst female altos (part of the reason I prefer countertenors) and basses. Anyway, whatever it is, she had it, at least in the lower parts of her register, and I'm afraid that rules her out of being considered really good in my book.

David Bates (countertenor: Micah, friend of Samson) - could try harder. Had some problems with tuning, while even when he wasn't literally flat in the sense of falling below the note he was meant to be hitting, his tone inclined towards the metaphorically flat, which made him sound a bit drone-y. Still, there seemed to be an essentially good voice in there - powerful, clear and with a good range. He just needs to work a little on tuning and texture.

Ed Lyon (tenor: Samson) - very good in all respects other than having the same warble as I mentioned above. In him, it was present almost all the time, which was sad, as it spoilt what would otherwise have been a really lovely voice for me.

Jacques Imbrailo (baritone: Manoah, Samson's father) - he really made us sit up and take notice during the afternoon rehearsal. For me, the best discovery of the evening, which was a pleasant surprise as I don't normally tend to like lower voices. Just a really nice, natural-sounding tone, especially in the upper parts of the register.

David Kimberg (bass: Harapha, the warrior) - did a really good job of being all macho and pose-y when he was facing off with Samson. A good, strong bass, but as I've hinted, I don't tend to like basses, and he didn't quite have the 'wow!' quality of Imbrailo to make me pay special attention to him. Still, as my Mum said, he made a nice change from Michael George, who seems to be a recurring figure in all baroque performances at Symphony Hall.

On the whole, then, I'd say three-and-a-half tumbling temples out of five tumbling temples. Not the perfect performance, but I'm glad I went, and I'd certainly make the effort to catch it again.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
megamole
Feb. 28th, 2006 08:47 am (UTC)
Why, Handel, why? What did you think you were doing?

Here's a little secret.

Early in his life, Handel didn't know English very well. When he was writing the Coronation Anthems for King George, he had to write some of the word-settings out phonetically all'italiano, for instance "Chinks dauchters wer dhy onorabil womin".

Also, it's quite possible (and I could tell you if I heard the chorus) that he borrowed the music from an earlier piece. In which case he would (as I currently do when putting on my favourite waistcoat) have to squeeze the corners in a bit.

P.S. Which operas do you now have in your collection?
strange_complex
Feb. 28th, 2006 09:57 am (UTC)
Handel didn't know English very well

Um - yes, I know. Read the post properly!

Which operas do you now have in your collection?

It was all a bit of a whirl, and they're now at home, so I can't double-check. But off the top of my head, I think I've now acquired Alcina, Serse, Ariodante, Amadigi, Rinaldo, Radamisto and a disk of Janet Baker singing a cantata called 'Lucrezia' and various operatic arias.
megamole
Feb. 28th, 2006 11:37 am (UTC)
Um - yes, I know. Read the post properly!
Point.

Trust my boss to come over while I was halfway through it...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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