Handel: Esther / The Sixteen

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Recorded in 1995, this Esther was first issued as Collins Classics 7040-2 early the following year. Like Hogwood, Harry Christophers recorded the original 1718 version...
Recorded in 1995, this Esther was first issued as Collins Classics 7040-2 early the following year. Like Hogwood, Harry Christophers recorded the original 1718 version of what has gone down in history as Handel’s first English oratorio.

In point of fact, the complex and still largely unresolved history of Esther suggests that it was not originally composed as an oratorio at all, but rather as a staged work that would have formed a companion to the near-contemporary Acis and Galatea. Like the English masque, Esther was one of the works composed during the period Handel was patronized by James Brydges, later Duke of Chandos, although—unlike Acis and the Chandos Anthems—there is no firm evidence that it was first given at Brydges’s recently completed lavish country home, Cannons. During the 1720s, Esther lay undisturbed as Handel consolidated his reputation as an Italian opera composer, but in February 1732, it re-emerged, firstly in three private performances given in London to celebrate Handel’s forty-seventh birthday, and then two months later in a pirate public performance. Handel’s response, as would frequently be the case when his music was appropriated without authorization, was to perform a substantially revised and expanded version himself on May 2, thus unwittingly laying the foundations for the great series of oratorios that would follow.

The source for Esther was Racine’s 1689 Biblical play of the same name, which had recently been translated into English by Thomas Brereton. The author of Handel’s libretto has not been identified, possibly fortuitously given the universally bad press it has been accorded among Handel scholars. As has been pointed out by Handel scholar Winton Dean, there is nothing sacred about the Book of Esther, which is rather a piece of Jewish history that relates how the exiled Jews were saved from massacre at the hands of Haman, chief minister of the Persian King Ahasuerus (Xerses I) by Esther, a member of the Jewish community who has recently become the king’s second wife. The music with which Handel clothed this scenario was to a substantial extent (nine of the 21 numbers) drawn from his recently completed “Brockes Passion,” a German work that he would have had little opportunity to perform in England.

Notwithstanding structural weaknesses and the static nature of much of the action (it is difficult to imagine the work being staged), there is plenty of fine music for Handelians to enjoy. Much of it has a youthful verve and energy that harks back to the composer’s Italian period, while the colorful deployment of the relatively small orchestral forces (harp obbligato in the Israelite Woman’s “Praise the Lord,” a pair of crooning bassoons in Ahasuerus’s “O beauteous Queen,” and thrilling horns in the Priest’s “Jehovah, crown’d” and the succeeding chorus “He comes, he comes,” later to become the opening movements of the second of the Concerti a due cori) provides a constant source of pleasure.

There can be little question that the true heroes of the present recording are Christophers, who conducts the work with a fervent conviction that makes the excellent Hogwood look at times a little prosaic, and his quite magnificent chorus, who sing throughout with an incisive precision, superb articulation, and clarity of diction that is often electrifying. His soloists enjoy somewhat more mixed fortunes, with the good if rather anonymous Esther of Lynda Russell proving no match for that of Hogwood’s Patrizia Kwella, and the highly capable Tom Randle’s Ahasuerus failing to dislodge memories of Anthony Rolfe Johnson at his peak. But Michael Chance sings a wonderful Priest (his intensely moving “O Jordan, Jordan” is one of the highlights of the set) that eclipses that of Drew Minter, and Nancy Argenta provides a poignant reminder of the singer she was with a radiantly joyful “Praise the Lord.” Haman, the one character of real interest (there are surely pre-echoes of Saul in his downfall), is powerfully sung by Michael George, although David Thomas for Hogwood arguably invested the role with greater personality. In general, though, this is a quite splendid performance of a work more often mentioned by historians than heard, a fate it certainly does not deserve. -BRIAN ROBINS, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 01, 2004

  • UPC: 828021601927

  • Catalog Number: COR16019

  • Label: CORO

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: George Frideric Handel

  • Conductor: Harry Christophers

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: The Sixteen, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention

  • Performer: Anthony Robson, Lynda Russell, Mark Padmore, Matthew Vine, Michael Chance, Michael George, Nancy Argenta, Robert Evans, Simon Berridge, Simon Birchall, Thomas Randle