~ HWV 50a ~
Collins Classics 70402
Recorded in 1995.
Originally released in 1996.
Regis RRC 2025
Re-issued in 2004.
Esther: Lynda Russell, soprano
Israelite Woman: Nancy Argenta, soprano
Priest of the Israelites: Michael Chance, countertenor
Ahasuerus, Second Israelite: Thomas Randle, tenor
Mordecai, First Israelite: Mark Padmore, tenor
Officer, Fourth Israelite: Matthew Vine, tenor
Habdonah, Third Israelite: Simon Berridge, tenor
Haman: Michael George, bass
Duet: Robert Evans, bass 1
Duet: Simon Birchall, bass 2
Including, the Oboe Sonata in G minor (HWV 404)
Anthony Robson, oboe
The Symphony of Harmony and Invention (on period instruments)
Conductor: Harry Christophers
We cannot be certain where or when Esther was first performed, but it is assumed that the prospect of inventing the first English oratorio came at around the same time as Acis and Galatea in 1718. Whatever the provenance of the oratorio text, it was clearly closely based on Thomas Brereton’s play Esther; or Faith Triumphant that was published in 1715, and that was adapted from Racine’s Esther.
However, Handel’s ‘Oratorium’ is fairly loosely constructed and requires an explanation of several crucial incidents prior to the events portrayed in the oratorio: King Assuerus (alternatively spelt ‘Ahasuerus’) of Persia held a lavish feast to celebrate the third year of his reign. During this the King commanded for his beautiful wife Vashti to be brought before him, so that he could proudly introduce her to his Royal guests. However, Vashti refused to obey the King, and her disobedient attitude embarrassed the King and was considered a bad example for Persian wives to follow. Vashti lost her exalted royal position (i.e. she was beheaded), and Assuerus began to search for a new wife. Mordecai, a Jew, took Esther to the King's house, so that she could be considered as an eligible candidate. Both Jews kept their race and religion secret from the Persians, Esther pleased the King, and after 12 months became Queen. Esther continued to keep her faith and cultural background secret, and meanwhile Mordecai saved the King from an assassination plot. The remainder of the biblical story is retold in Handel’s oratorio. King Assuerus appoints the arrogant Haman as his right hand man. Haman forces everybody to ‘reverence’ him, and bow before him. Mordecai refuses, and in revenge Haman tricks the King into arranging a decree that all enemies of the State must die. Haman uses this as an opportunity to persecute the Jews, but Mordecai encourages Esther to intercede with the King on their behalf. However, this is a dangerous course of action because it is forbidden to enter the King’s inner court without having first obtained his personal invitation. All who break this law are instantly condemned to death, unless the King recognizes the person, and holds out his golden sceptre towards them. Esther bravely visits the King unbidden, and is spared by his love for her. Esther requests that the King and Haman join her at a banquet. Meanwhile, Haman has had tall gallows built especially for Mordecai. At the banquet, Esther exposes Haman's treachery against Mordecai and her people, and Haman is unceremoniously strung up on his own gallows. The Israelites rejoice that they may be allowed to return home and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Careless printers have regrettably cut Harry Christophers’ new foreword for The Sixteen’s reissue of Esther short of its last. I can sympathise with this, having had one of my recent CD booklet notes rendered utterly confusing by the omission of a single crucial word. Yet booklet problems can do nothing to lessen the pleasure I get from this recording of Esther (which also includes a fine performance of the Oboe Sonata in G minor performed by Anthony Robson). The cast is not perfect in every respect, but the performance from the entire team is outstanding. Christopher Hogwood’s older Decca recording has singers that are more pleasing in the main roles, but The Sixteen’s performance is more exciting, bolder, and dramatic overall. The Sixteen are on particularly excellent form. The extended verse anthem style of the grand finale ‘The Lord our Enemy has slain’ dwarves the rest of the oratorio, but it is brilliantly executed here with the perfect balance of polish and enthusiasm.
Michael Chance and Nancy Argenta probably the best soloists featured despite their small roles. I also found Mark Padmore’s ‘Tune your harps’ pleasing, although his voice has considerably improved since this recording was made just under a decade ago. Tom Randle and Lynda Russell make a rather forceful pair of regal lovers, but their emphasis on drama instead of vocal beauty produces a useful alternative to Hogwood’s superb Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Patrizia Kwella. Michael George is an ideal Haman, and his plea for mercy in ‘Turn not, O Queen’ is exemplary.
The libretto of Esther is not as dramatically self-contained as the finest of Handel’s English music dramas, and its choruses are slender compared to Israel in Egypt, Handel’s ‘Oratorium’ ought to be respected for what it is rather than what it is not. Much of the score reveals Handel at his best, with imaginative accompaniments that feature horns, pizzicato strings, and even a solo harp. This new Coro reissue is more attractive and better documented than the ugly and badly packaged Regis reissue that was distributed a few years ago without The Sixteen’s blessing. I would personally prefer to pay the higher price so that the money goes directly towards supporting The Sixteen’s work, but in either edition this is a recording that Handel lovers should listen to many times.
© David Vickers - February 2004
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