St. MACHAR’S CATHEDRAL Sunday, 27 April 2008

By Alan Cooper

The Bach Choir’s performance of Handel’s Samson was their first ever foray into the world of that composer’s oratorios and it was dedicated to the memory of the late Elma Reid who had been a member of the choir since its re-establishment in 1956. In all the years that I have been attending concerts by the Bach Choir, Elma Reid was there, like a reliable landmark in the human geography of the choir. She will be sadly missed.

I was not in the least surprised to note that Handel’s Samson has been performed more than once as a fully staged opera. All oratorios have an essential dramatic element within them but in this work by Handel, it features more powerfully than in most, so one of the prime tasks that a musical director must set his mind to is casting the various soloists. Gordon Jack had struck gold in choosing tenor Iain Paton to sing the role of Samson himself. A young, strong, virile tenor, he embodied the essentially heroic aspect of the character. Even in defeat, Samson does not give in totally to despair although in his aria Total eclipse! No sun no moon!, a particularly poignant moment in the work especially when you remember that both John Milton the originator of the text and Handel himself were blind, nevertheless, Samson as sung by Iain Paton radiated underlying strength.

As Samson’s father, Manoah, Alan Watt gave an acceptable performance as the older man though I felt the character of Harapha the giant Philistine warrior could have done with a more stentorian or resonant voice. Something that is not always easy to find these days.

Colette Ruddy as Micah gave a marvellously consistent and rich-toned performance while the silver clear soprano of Wilma MacDougall easily coped with the high tessitura of Handel’s writing and of course, right at the end she gets the only real “show-stopper” in this work, Let the bright seraphim… Oh, and there was an especially fine performance from young Colin Brockie as the Israelitish messenger. This is surely a young man to look out for in the future.

Right at the end of the work too, the Bach Choir chorus were sounding every bit as fresh and alive as they had at the start. Their singing throughout the work was powerful, invigorating and nicely balanced. Their Chorus of Israelites and Philistines at the end of Act Two was particularly impressive. Here too was a fine example of the prowess of Aberdeen Sinfonietta with Isabel John resplendent on timpani.

Sinfonietta in fact was one of the glories of this performance. Trumpets and horns as well as cutting edge string playing put a fine sheen on Handel’s music and there was an exemplary performance from Roger Williams on the organ. It is a compliment to say that most of the time it was necessary to concentrate really hard to hear him at all because he made the organ blend so perfectly into the general instrumental and choral textures of Handel’s music.

The whole performance was paced and controlled by the confident and relaxed conducting of Gordon Jack. As this is his fourth concert with the choir, I can hardly call him the Choir’s new conductor, but am I just imagining it, or is there a new sense of confidence and contentment coming through in all the singing? We look forward to many more of his performances with the Aberdeen Bach Choir.


Aberdeen Bach Choir

Handel's Samson 27 April 2008 St Machar's Cathedral

Handel wrote his oratorios Samson and Messiah back to back and although Samson never achieved the same level of popularity it remains a firm favourite of audiences and choral societies alike. A tremendously dramatic work – Handel actually hired actors for the first performances, it has many wonderful arias and choruses, including last but not least the celebrated Let the Bright Seraphim.

The Aberdeen Bach Choir are renowned for tackling epic works and Samson is certainly that in every respect.

For last night’s superb performance at St Machar’s Cathedral the Bach Choir were accompanied by the Aberdeen Sinfonietta and joined by four outstanding professional soloists, the Soprano Wilma MacDougall, the Alto Colette Ruddy, the Tenor Iain Paton who sang the role of Samson and the Aberdeen born Bass Alan Watt.

Musical Director Gordon Jack conducted a well-rehearsed Choir extracting from them a boundless wave of power when the drama required, yet in the gentler passages they found a reflective, thought provoking tenderness. Meanwhile the soloists all performed with passion and conviction so much so that it was all I could do not to applaud after every aria and chorus.

St Machar’s can at times be an unsympathetic acoustic, it was certainly never designed to assist the sort of detail Handel wrote into the likes of Samson. However, this moving work came to life thanks to the Bach Choir and assumed a grandiose presence that was hugely compelling and highly memorable.

Roddy Phillips
Published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal Monday 28 April 2008
Reproduced by kind permission of Roddy Phillips