Handel: Samson

[Joshua Ellicott Samson, Jess Dandy Micah, Matthew Brook Manoa, Vitali Rozynko Harapha, Sophie Bevan Delila, Hugo Hymas An Israelite, A Philistine, Messenger, Mary Bevan A virgin, An Israelite woman, A Philistine woman, Fflur Wyn A virgin, A Philistine woman, Tiffin Boys’ Choir, directed by James Day], Dunedin Consort, John Butt
204:14 (3 CDs in a cardboard box)
Linn CKD 599

In some ways the most remarkable thing about this recording is that it exists at all. Not many projects requiring a week’s recording time make it to disc these days so congratulations and thanks to those who have provided the funding and/or taken the financial risk, for it really is a major undertaking that requires eight soloists; additional singers for the chorus including trebles for the top line; and an orchestra in which horns, trumpets, oboes and bassoon join a relatively large body of strings and the keyboard continuo. And the choruses were all recorded twice! The discs include Handel’s standard scoring of adults with the boys adding richness to the top line, but also available for download is a performing option which Handel seems to have used from time to time – ‘just’ the soloists singing together with an extra ripieno alto to balance the sections.

The booklet, too, is pretty lavish though in English only. We are offered two excellent essays – on the work itself and on performing issues, the full text (and there’s a lot of it) and the usual performers’ credits. I do wish that these (for the singers, at least) weren’t quite so formulaic: only two get beyond the standard lists of prizes, roles and conductors.

Few of us will know Samson as well as we should – a shame, for it gives us Handel on fine form not only in the content of individual movements but in the way in which he subverts our musical expectations to engage and re-engage our attention. The ‘plot’ is a sequence of tableaux and philosophising rather than pure narrative drama and the music makes considerable demands on the performers, not least of stamina. Joshua Ellicott as Samson draws us in to his world, rather than shouting about it, and really does sing most beautifully. He and all his colleagues exhibit some fine diction, especially in recitative – and it’s not often I find that I want to say that. I do think that all the singers have moments when their vibrato gets away from them but this is less of an issue than on many CDs I have recently reviewed for EMR. The orchestra is also a classy act and John Butt has a sure hand in matters of musical pacing.

So if you don’t know Samson, you should make this your way in. This release is unlikely to be surpassed – or even competed with – for some time.

David Hansell

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