Hair today, Dagon tomorrow The bigger picture

CLASSICAL MUSIC Samson St John's Smith Square, London
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The Independent Culture
For the sake of a neat review, it would be simple to present Harry Christophers as a master of Samson's powerfully dramatic music, while finding his interpretation wanting in its response to the introvert, reflective mood of the oratorio's first act. The lugubrious recitatives and indulgent speeds set for the first-act arias suggested the triumph of time over truth, or at least of time over the underlying drama of Samson's imprisonment and the subjugation of his people. But Christophers' vision of the work depended on its gradual increase in tension and the development of strong characters, clearly shared by his magnificent solo team and alert continuo group.

Opinions concerning the imminent extinction of that rare breed, the intelligent singer of English Oratorio, can be checked at least while Catherine Wyn- Rogers, Thomas Randle and Michael George remain in business. Randle has developed an attractively rich, almost baritonal sound-quality of late, without losing clarity in the upper reaches of his fine tenor, or any flexibility. Here was a Samson with attitude, memorably dismissing his venal wife Dalila and at his heroic best in "Your Charms to Ruin Led the Way". The second-act confrontation between Randle, wearing a black leather penguin suit, and Jonathan Best's robust Harapha might almost have been stage-managed by Don King, a compelling contest between two vocal heavyweights.

Wyn-Rogers' expressive singing proved the benefit of a large, colourful voice, clearly focused and faultless in its production, to the performance of early music. Her genuinely bel canto delivery of "Return, O God of Hosts" highlighted the need for passionate singing in Handel, even when romantic excesses have been stripped away from the phrasing and subtlety supplants extravagance. Likewise, Michael George plumbed the emotional depths of Manoa's final aria with acute sensitivity to the text.

The telescoping and adaptation of Milton's Samson Agonistes by Newburgh Hamilton offers up a few potential hostages to misfortune, not least in the matter-of-fact delivery of Samson's death or his parting line, "I begin to feel some inward motions, which bid me to go". Handel's audiences no doubt drew breath on hearing the news of how the Israelite destroyed the temple of Dagon and ended his life; their modern counterparts, raised on Hollywood biblical epics, may feel short-changed by the oratorio's brief, second-hand outline of Samson's demise. Any want of drama here is abundantly compensated for by the dignity of Handel's music, highlighted with moving compassion by Christophers and his performers. The "Dead March", with its eerie mix of horns, kettledrums, strings and chamber organ, was raised here to the epitome of grief, a painful, very personal, yet public expression of the composer's feelings. Elsewhere, the choristers of The Sixteen matched the committed singing style of the solo team, contributing powerfully to this outstanding performance.