Fricsay’s “Samson” Deeply Moving

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HANDEL: Samson (abridged, sung in German)/Ernst Häfliger, tenor (Samson); Maria Stader, soprano (Dalila); Marga Höffgen, contralto (Micah); Kim Borg, bass (Manoah); Heinz Rehfuss, bass (Harapha); Maria Reith (Philistine Woman); RIAS-Kammerchor; Chorus of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; RIAS-Symphony Orchestra; Ferenc Fricsay, conductor / Urania Arts 121.360-2 (live: Berlin, September 18, 1955)

A great many people, myself included, were shocked and saddened when Ferenc Fricsay suddenly retired due to ill health in early 1962 and then died a year later. Many of us saw in him not necessarily a successor to Toscanini, which he thought himself, but certainly one of those conductors who acted as a bridge from the old days of heavy and incorrect performances of standard repertoire (particularly of the Classical era) towards a new leaner, cleaner, more transparent sound without sacrificing emotional intensity. This heavily abridged performance of Handel’s Samson, recorded in one day (!) at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik on September 18, 1955, is issued here for the first time ever.

There are some obvious reasons why it was held back from issue on LPs. First and foremost is its abridgment. Particularly during the stereo LP era, which came about just three years after this performance was recorded, it would surely have put off a great many record buyers. So too would its performance in German instead of English. We were nearing the end of the era when operas and oratorios were performed in the vernacular of the country in which they were given (America, as usual, excepted), but we weren’t quite there yet. Indeed, one of Fricsay’s last public appearances was a performance of Don Giovanni at the Berlin opera in September 1961, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, and it, too, was in German. The Germans and the Russians were among the last to cling to this tradition, not letting go until the late 1960s.

But the true test of any performance of any music, regardless of era, sound quality and/or the forces used, is its ability to transcend the printed page and move the listener, and I am here to tell you that this is by far the greatest performance of Samson I’ve ever heard. But what about Karl Richter’s “classic” complete recording with Alexander Young, Martina Arroyo and others? Beautifully sung, but too weighty in orchestral sound and too slow. Nikolaus Harnoncourt? Also too slow. Raymond Leppard? Too romantic in style. And all the HIP performances, including Gardiner’s, sound absolutely punk. Not only are they too thin in orchestral and choral sound, but the solo singers range from just tolerable to dismal…especially the tenors singing Samson. I certainly won’t claim that Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger could give Edward Lloyd or Tudor Davies a run for their money, but he’s surely better than wobbly Mark Padmore and the rest of those teeny-voiced whiners who represent Samson on modern recordings. Plus, Häfliger has something that none of the others except Young possessed, and that is heart. He sings “Total eclipse,” positioned here third in the first act instead of in 14th place as it is supposed to be, with as much soul as I’ve heard from any tenor not named Jon Vickers. He is flat out stupendous in the role.

Moreover, Fricsay manages to maintain a consistency of musical vision from start to finish that is both musically taut and deeply felt. Being a live performance, it captures the conductor at his best. Fricsay, like his predecessor Toscanini, always gave more of himself and modified his tempos with more elasticity in live performances.

Judging from the sound, the orchestra seems to be comprised of about 40 to 50 musicians, and although the basses sound a little thick to modern ears there’s really not much else to complain of. Fricsay uses Baroque trumpets and a harpsichord in place of a fortepiano. In short, he at least simulates the sound and quality of a Baroque orchestra, certainly to a far greater degree of fidelity than one hears nowadays from most HIP orchestras. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear singers like basso Kim Borg, who didn’t always sing this repertoire, perform with the necessary flexibility in their coloratura runs. Moreso than in “bel canto” operas, florid runs and trills in Baroque music were meant to signify great excitement and/or anguish, and Borg sings his difficult aria “Thy glorious deeds inspir’d my tongue” with superb flexibility for so large a voice. Maria Stader, one of Fricsay’s favorite sopranos, sounds far more involved here than in any other recording in which I’ve heard her. The echo effects that she and Maria Reith achieve in their duet “My faith and truth” are as beautiful as I’ve ever heard from any singers in any material. And in the great baritone showpiece, “Honour and arms,” Heinz Rehfuss does as splendid a job as the great Peter Dawson, which is quite a compliment.

In short, this is a deeply moving performance, historically accurate in terms of the performing forces and fairly close to the right style, and to be honest I am more than willing to let the extra hour-plus of missing music go in exchange for this powerful dramatic experience. One small moment that sums up the whole experience: in Act III, Micah has a recitative titled “With might endured above the sons of men.” Just listen to the sweep and drive that Fricsay gives to this music: it’s almost like a mini-tidal wave. With drama like that, who needs wimpy white-toned strings and hooty countertenors? I sure don’t. And the choral singing is to die for. It sounds like the Voice of God. Only one caveat: the CD back insert claims this recording is in stereo, but it is not. It is good quality German radio studio mono.

Well, I’ve laid out my case for this recording. If you agree with what I wrote, you need to go out and grab it. If you don’t, you’re more than welcome to Mark Padmore and whatever hooty countertenors are singing with him.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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