Friday, 21 August 2009

Handel's Radical Terrorist Samson Prom 47 2009

This Prom could smash down the pillars of Handel-hate. This Samson made Handel seem completely modern. Why modern? He's been dead 250 years. This performance was so good that it brought out the sharp edge to Handel, so the drama felt totally up to the minute and vivid.

Frighteningly so, too, for some of the material is uncomfortably close to modern wounds. Given that the next Prom will feature the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members are drawn from all sides of the conflict in the Middle East, it's disturbing to hear lines like "Gaza yet stands though all her sons are fallen" and "Sweep this race from this Land". There's no escaping the political nature of this oratorio. As has often been pointed out, Samson is the ultimate suicide bomber, who kills himself in order to kill as many of his enemies as possible, without regard to whether they're innocent bystanders or not. They're Philistines after all, not righteous like "us". There are virgins for the martyr in the next life. Intolerance stays the same whatever the flavour of the current beliefs.

Obviously Handel was writing about another time and place. There was no chance that a man of his era would have gone against the certainties of the Bible, however much they don't fit in with the more humanitarian values now associated with Jesus. Handel and his friends supported Church and State as institutions, whatever Jesus may have taught about gathering the little children, the powerless and so on. Handel's "Middle East" wasn't about Jews and non-Jews so much as about British society in his time. Handel's London was cutting-edge progressive compared with the rest of Europe. It was a place where new money and power held sway. The British beheaded their king long before the French even dreamed of having a revolution. Milton was the Karl Marx of Cromwell's armies. Hence the militant ethic, the self-righteousness. Of course they were humble before God, but God is whatever you make him out to be.

Hence the violence of the metaphors "The tempest of thy wrath.... in whirlwinds they pursue". And the particularly vindictive language Milton used to put down women. "Out! Hyena!" Samson cries at Dalila, who comes "sailing like a stately ship". Milton's misogyny had personal roots, but putting down others to soothe oneself is part of the extremist spirit. Samson, for example, is incensed because Dagon's followers party "free from sorrow, free from thrall, all blithe and gay, with sports and play" and drink lots of wine. Evidently, this is threatening to him. Samson's mad because he let himself be seduced. "Effeminacy held me yok'd". What would a psychiatrist make of it? "How cunningly the sorceress displays her own transgressions, to upbraid me mine!". Think about it.

Fortunately Handel didn't carry the same baggage. His Dalila, especially characterized by the winsome Susan Gritton, is supported by a beautiful solo violin, strengthened by cello and a band of women's voices. He's even fairly fair and even when it comes to the warring tribes. In the double choruses, both Israelites and Philistines sing the same words : the name of their Gods interchangeable. It's very subtle, in contrast with the unblinking self satisfaction of the Third Act.

Mark Padmore's Samson is an apotheosis. He creates Samson as a full personality, which is quite a feat. His Samson is a troubled beast in every sense. This Samson's strength comes from within. He's no WWF clown (note WWF wrestlers often have long hair). There's so much in this part that a lesser singer could coast, but Padmore brings an unusally white-hot intensity to his performance. Padmore's Samson is fuelled by buried conflicts and repressions. He spits venom, when he accuses Dalila of being a snake. Wonderful clipped phrasing, crackling with tension. This is how I like to hear Padmore, taking risks and engaging emotionally. He makes you understand how Samson comes to feel "some inward motions". He sings that last aria, "Thus when the sun from's watr'y bed" with quiet dignity. It's interesting how Handel writes it in a very different way to the blood-curdling defiance that's gone before.

Exceptionally crisp, clear textures in the playing from the English Concert led by Harry Bicket. This is baroque as "new music". Such freshness and vivacity, such sharpness of attack - worlds away from the soft-grained piety of mediocre performances that have saddled Handel with a bad image. Bicket shows just how cutting edge Samson must have felt once, when memories of the English Civil War were still fresh, and Europe was on the verge of The Age of Reason.

The funeral march in the Third Act showed how period instruments can pack a punch, played with this level of commitment. Listen to the natural horns and trumpets, the latter as long as trombones, but without a slide, the length extending the sound. The continuo is brisk, forthright, propelling forward movement. "Bring the laurels, bring the bays" sing the chorus, at a crisp walking pace. How vividly visual Handel's music can be! When Lucy Crowe appears to sing the famous "Let the bright Seraphim", you can almost see the angels, "and the cherubic host in tuneful choirs. " Close-up on television, you can see her eyes widen as she listen to the trumpets in the orchestra before she takes off into golden coloratura. "Let their celestial concerts all unite" sing the choir, "ever to sound his praise in endless blaze of light". This performance really did shine, especially against the darkness, the Eclipse, that went before.

Excellent singing throughout - Susan Gritton seductive and sympathetic, Iestyn Davies clear, Neal Davies full of character. Christopher Purves a solid Harapha.

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