Handel’s Esther: A Special Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel: Esther, HWV501 (First Reconstructable Version, Cannons, 1720) Soloists, Dunedin Consort, John Butt (director) Wigmore Hall, London, 26.4.2013 (CC)

Esther – Mhairi Lawson
Habdonah & Assuerus – James Gilchrist
Haman – Matthew Brook
Mordechai – Nicholas Mulroy
First Israelite – Thomas Hobbs
Officer & Second Israelite – Malcolm Bennett
Israelite Boy – Rachel Redmond
Priest of the Israelites – Tim Mead

The synthesis of scholarly research – of both sources and performance practice – and sheer verve was what made this performance special. The Wigmore was, perhaps predictably, packed. This was the Dunedin Consort’s only London appearance this season, and there seemed to be a collective decision to make it count. Intelligently chosen soloists, familiarity with the music – but not over-familiarity – and a true dramatic grasp all conspired to create musical electricity.

The Wigmore stage was rather heavily populated, but the resultant sound never threatened to overwhelm – at least, not seated right on the last row. This is a fascinating piece, which finds Handel on the way to fully-fledged Oratorio. Certainly the final act seems to mark a real sense of arrival point in this respect. Esther is sometimes referred to as his first English Oratorio. It reached its first fruition in 1718, before being revisited in 1720, possibly for the Duke of Chandos, whose musicians were seated at Cannons, in Edgware. It takes a sacred subject but sets it dramatically. Assuerus is a Persian king, and the evil Haman is his evil associate; Mordecai leads the Jewish community in Persia and is guardian of Esther, who has been chosen as queen. Haman orders a massacre of the Jews; meanwhile the Jews celebrate Esther as their queen. Conventions are mightily important in this world, and it is a significant gesture that the King allows Esther even to approach him, before avowing his deepest love for her. Esther acts as a peacemaker, exposing Haman and freeing the Jews.

The actual libretto looks slight but the performance spread out until 9:45pm. Yet Butt’s pacing was so spot on that it felt much less. The stamina of the players, in particular the standing violins, was remarkable. Right from the off in the Overture there was a wonderful combination of jaunty joie de vivre and superb ensemble. Individual contributions were notable – especially the oboe of Katharina Spreckelsen; but throughout it was a delight to revel in the players’ evident immersion in the Handelian world. The brazenly outdoor-ish horn lip trills in the opening of the third act not only were perfectly placed, they were viscerally exciting into the bargain.

It is Haman who has the first air, “Pluck root and branch from out the land”, and here the commanding bass Matthew Brook established his core vocal strength, to be balanced by the vigorous and perfectly balanced chorus.

For pure eloquence, the high tenor line of the First Israelite’s aria, “Tune your harps to cheerful strains” took some beating. Thomas Hobbs’ vocal line achieved a perfect legato against pizzicato strings and an obbligato oboe – he excelled again in his brief contribution to the central act. Balancing this was the chorus’ deliberate heaviness in “Shall we of servitude complain?” The scoring of the Israelite Boy’s aria, “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise” was just as inventive and, here, even more magical, the underpinning of the musical argument by agile harp was a thing of joy. The Israelite “boy” was no boy here, though. Rather, the part was taken by the beautifully light-voiced Scottish soprano, Rachel Redmond.

The massive dynamic contrasts of the Priest of the Israelite’s air, “O Jordan, Jordan, sacred tide” contain surely some of Handel’s most progressive writing. Countertenor Tim Mead rose to the air’s challenges magnificently – surprisingly, he seemed somewhat restrained in his contribution to the final scene of the work. The character of Esther herself has to wait until the second act before taking the stage. Soprano Mhairi Lawson was the perfect choice, shaping phrases intelligently and becomingly; her diction throughout was exemplary – particularly noteworthy in the final act’s “O gracious King, my people spare”. Her encounters with Mordecai could have been more dramatic, not through any fault of her own but because of a lack of presence from tenor Nicholas Mulroy. The initial negative impression of Mulroy was confirmed by a “Dread not, righteous Queen, the danger” that simply lacked character; Esther’s re-entrance brought a breath of relief, as if the performance instantaneously realigned itself. Her “Tears assist me, pity moving” was genuinely touching and beautiful, the perfect counterfoil for the strong and commanding Assuerus of James Gilchrist, who also took the role of Habdonah. If Gilchrist’s vibrato sounded a touch tremulous at times, his was nevertheless a notable contribution to the evening, culminating in “How can I stay, when love invites?”

The chorus was astonishing throughout, although nowhere more so than in the lovely “Ye sons of Israel mourn” and nowhere more aptly celebratory than in the final “For ever blessed be thy holy name”. This last section, the whole final scene of the piece, is chorus-dominated and seemed to be the proper climax for this memorable performance. The recording made by the Dunedin Consort for Linn,(which shares many of the soloists with this performance, was of course on sale; but it was the immediacy of the experience which made the evening special.

Colin Clarke