DOUBLE PLAY / Staring into the dark: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson seek out the strengths of Samson in a new recording

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HANDEL: Samson

Roberta Alexander, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Jochen Kowalski, Alastair Miles, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec 9031-74871-2, two CDs)

IT'S a rare Handel opera or oratorio that doesn't contain something wonderful, but Samson is virtually a continuous stream of inspired numbers. There are highlights, and breathtaking dramatic ideas: the echo voice adding subtle seductive emphasis to Dalila's 'My faith and truth', the sudden, almost cinematic cutaway to a mourning solo soprano in 'Glorious Hero', or the disturbing modulations in 'Return, return, O God of hosts' (did Schubert know this?); but the list of star numbers soon grows out of all proportion. When at last we get to the two old favourites - the 'Dead March' and 'Let the bright seraphim' - there may be the pleasure of recognition, but no sense that either piece stands out - just another two fine components in an outstanding whole.

The performance (recorded in concert) isn't quite as consistent. Anton Scharinger's Manoa doesn't sound any more at ease with English than Handel apparently did, and Jochen Kowalski's blustering histrionics as Micah sometimes spoil the musical lines. But then there's Anthony Rolfe Johnson's heroic, heartfelt Samson, Alistair Miles's superb Philistine hard-man Harapha, and Roberta Alexander, an inspired diva-Dalila - her 'With plaintive notes' drips with deceptive sweetness.

As you might expect, the playing of Concentus Musicus Wien wilts a little towards the end of this long evening; the trumpets aren't ideally bright or steady in the concluding numbers. But the determination is still there, and the final 'in endless blaze of light' rings with conviction. SJ

ONLY as Samson's lifeless body was borne aloft to the numbing simplicity of Handel's march and the plaintive voice of an Israelite woman could be heard in poignant exchanges with the chorus, only then did I truly begin to feel involved. That can't be right. Part of the problem here is the stand-offish recording balance. Even the gleaming trumpet of 'Bright Seraphim' (none too scintillating in Maria Venuti's strenuous coloratura) is but a fuzzy presence somewhere off in the reverberant middle-distance of the Musikverein. The focus, vitality, immediacy of this music is compromised.

Middle-aged spread extends to some of the tempi and articulations, too, and the singing is variable. Anthony Rolfe Johnson is (predictably) a class act, so affecting in his ability to cover the sound and look inwards to Samson's darkness; Jochen Kowalski's extraordinary male alto has its moments, exquisite and poorly tuned, Alastair Miles lifts the temperature with 'Honour and Arms', and Roberta Alexander, a little self-conscious in the style (give this voice a Puccini tune any day), is more effective in anger than contrition. Overall impression - grey. ES

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